Shelbatra talked to Dougald in Rab, Croatia, during Dougald's Resilients' Transiency in July 2012.

Dougald Hine Photo by timelab, taken at the Resilients Salon with Dougald Hine and Ben Vickers

Shelbatra Jashari: How do you describe yourself?

Dougald Hine: My usual short answer is that I start organisations as a way to avoid finishing books: I'm a writer, but I'm easily distracted. I'm interested in how new things come about, how change happens, how new things enter social reality. The process by which something goes from being something no one quite has a way of saying to something that everyone is talking about. Or the process by which things go from being a conversation, an idea that comes out of nowhere when a group of people are jamming together around the table, to something that captures people's imagination, something that affects people in really down-to-earth, concrete ways.

Because I'm interested in that stuff, I've ended up spending quite a lot of my time in the last few years being part of groups of people who create new projects, who create new organisations. There was a web start-up called School of Everything which was inspired by ideas from Ivan Ilich from the early 70s about learning webs, about using networks to route around institutions and allow us to organise our own learning. There's an agency in London called Spacemakers, which is a kind of civic ideas agency, bringing people together to reinvent and re-imagine spaces and places, and doing practical projects on the ground with local people that come out of that process. There's something called the Dark Mountain project which started as a manifesto that I wrote with a guy called Paul Kingsnorth who used to be the editor of The Ecologist magazine. That came out of our frustration with the narrowing of environmentalism down to carbon counting and looking for technical and political fixes, and us saying, unless we ask the cultural questions about how we got into this mess, we're sunk.

It's only by asking those questions that we have a chance of keeping going at the point, when we realise that carbon counting and the technical fixes are not going to get us out of the mess we're in, that a lot of this is actually stuff that is just, it's going to happen. We're not going to make our current way of living sustainable. That was never either a realistic or actually a desirable goal to begin with. And from [the Dark Mountain] manifesto, that's ended up being a series of books, it's ended up being a festival that happens once a year in the UK. Before I ended up in Sweden, there was already a group that had started up there which organised their own Dark Mountain Festival there, so it's kind of a cultural movement.

So somehow as a way of distracting myself from these books that I actually want to be getting on with writing, I've ended up spending up most of my productive time over the last few years instead being one of the instigators of these various apparently quite different projects and organisations.

What connects all of these different projects, in your view?

I think the principle for me that is common to them all is not mistaking the way we happen to do things for the thing we're trying to do. You could approach that from one angle and see that as a sort of design principle, a kind of rule of thumb for innovation, and so on. But to me that actually comes as much from Illich and from a historical, political critique of the counterproductivity and the destructiveness of many of the ways we happen to be doing things.

In Illich's critiques of institutions in the 70s, he says that beyond a certain point our education systems make us stupider as societies, our health systems make us more ill. The ways that we happen to be doing things are often achieving the opposite, or losing the things that matter most in the process. From that critique, I drew this principle of always keep that distinction in view. Keep the distinction between the deep social good that lies behind education, that's the reason why people treat education systems as things that matter so much, and the actual social structures and institutions and bureaucracies that we find ourselves with, which may quite possibly have run their course as homes for that deep social good. And at that point, if you're making that distinction, you might be able to recognize small pockets, marginal projects, things going on on the edges that become more hospitable to the social good, the thing we're trying to do, than the institution which bears the formal monopoly on that good within our society. (In other words, that is the only thing that we're meant to take seriously as a home for Education with a capital E.)

So to me, that's the common ground between School of Everything and Spacemakers, in the sense that what we do with those projects is to come in and look at a place with people and hopefully see some things which were not present in the way that people were talking about it, but which are true to what was there already, rather than classic regeneration where you're parachuting stuff in from 30,000 feet. Looking at situations and re-describing them on the basis that that gap or that distinction is usually a source of potential.

Resilience is not a term that I have used very much in my work, so when I was asked to do this I had to think about how I could connect it to things that feel like commonsense, that feel grounded, that feel meaningful for me. One of my reservations about resilience as a term is that it gets very bound up with systems thinking and systems talk. I don't want to go into all of the issues that I have with the dominance of that way of describing the world, but apart from anything else I think one of the things that happens is that people get stuck in a very vague, hand-wavy, high-level systemsy conversation about Everything, which can actually become a means of distracting ourselves from the concrete realities that resilience might point towards.

And so I started out from the beginning of this project saying, for my purposes, I'm going to talk about resilience as “the capacity to endure,” and I'm going to be curious about why it is that some people, some projects, some organisations, some societies, some countries seem to keep going in situations where others give up. To me, that's one thing that we could use “resilience” as a sign post towards: this curious thing of, what is it that means some of us feel it's worth keeping going in the really hard times, when other people crumble or collapse. When I was thinking about that, I went back and was re-reading some of Dmitri Orlov's writings about his experiences of observing the collapse of the Soviet Union, and one of the things he says is that the people who are worst hit by real social and economic collapse tend to be successful men over the age of 40. Because the whole framework within which they have succeeded (their identities are so linked to their careers), tends to be one of the first things that disappears. Because it turns out that that was a social game being played within that society and that economic order.

Now, when that society and that economic order collapses, it's not that there is no food left, it's not that there is no capacity to stay alive left, but the structures of meaning that have been what people have stayed alive for disappear and many of those people end up drinking themselves to death. A lot of the story of the collapsing male life expectancy in the 90s in Russia has to do with that. It's a collapse of meaning, because if people have meaning they're actually surprisingly resilient. This is part of what I'm digging at with this thing of saying, let's talk about resilience on the assumption that the cultural is not a superficial layer, but something that goes all of the way down.

This takes us, actually, to what I've been doing in practice on my journey as the pilot journey of Resilients guild, which is whirling around Europe very fast, having conversations with people, getting glimpses of things. And one of the things that I've been following in those conversations is the idea that the abstraction we might call “resilience” always actually exists in a social and cultural context and in different places – and in different times, as well – people have a different version of that. The Czech version of resilience is a much darker and more pessimistic thing, for example, than the German version would be one of my observations.

That was actually a question that I want to ask you. Can you give some examples of what you've been encountering during those journeys, concrete examples of what it is in resilience that you've been encountering, how, and…?

So, one of the threads that someone put me onto right at the beginning of the trip - Vinay Gupta said go to Finland and talk to people about this word, sisu.


Sisu! Which is this untranslatable concept which, partly as one of those modern, nation-building cultural constructs… [Noises off] Ooh, OK…

Dougald, you make people fall!

That's collapsonomics in practice, a man falling off his moped in front of us… He seems to be quite resilient…

Yes, very resilient.

So, sisu in Finland means something like inner strength, but it's almost an ideological word.

It sounds like sizzle, almost, in English!

It does sound like sizzle. I think it's kind of colder and damper than sizzle. It's sort of – it's a stubbornness. I spent an hour or so one morning in Helsinki just walking around the street with “sisu” written on a card, asking people if they could help explain this word to me. I got loads of fascinating stories about it. One guy said to me, it's like it has the force of a swearword, but it's positive. So if you use this word in a conversation, it's kind of like swearing, in terms of the intensification that it brings into what you're saying, but it's not an obscenity, it's just something that's an important and powerful word. That was really interesting in its own right. It is this kind of local, culturally-specific, constructed – but constructed and adopted – way of thinking about what it is that got the Finns through the winter war, when they're very proud of having beaten the Russians.

And it's sisu.

It's sisu.


Dougald: Yeah, sisu. And then I met a young Portuguese architect. We had a long conversation about the reality of how the crisis in Portugal is playing out. I also got the long history of Portuguese culture, going back to the Lisbon earthquake in the mid-18th century as this turning point in European philosophy and which also marks the turning point away from being a global imperial power in Portugal's history. And he was talking about saudade, the concept, the feeling that is at the heart of fado music, and its centrality to Portuguese culture. Out of that came the sense that, maybe, that ability to adopt and celebrate a certain kind of mournfulness is also a source of inner strength, but with a different flavour to it, coming from a different climate, a different landscape, a different economic relationship to the world in which you find yourselves.

And so that's part of what I've been trying to pick up the threads of on my whirling journey across Europe, this idea that maybe the capacity to endure always takes specific cultural forms. It's got to do with the stories we tell ourselves, and if what we're trying to do as a Guild of Resilients is to develop that capacity to endure – to notice the things that help, to notice the things that get in the way and the things that undermine it – then that might involve comparing notes, sharing these stories, recognising that they had their own beginnings.

There was a conscious effort at a certain point in time to promote the concept of sisu within Finland, and it would be really interesting to go deeper into what happens when people from other countries and other cultures come and settle in Finland. Whether you can acquire sisu, or whether you have to be born with it. There are these questions, once you start talking about the culturally-specific and the local and saying there's something valuable in it, about how you avoid that being chauvinistic and exclusive, but I don't think the fact that that's a risk means that we should shy away from the possibility that it is the local and the specific and the cultural that can make the critical difference.

I met this guy in a bar in Poland two weeks ago, a banjo player who'd been a seaman for 20 years. He'd lost two of his fingers, so he was playing the banjo with the ones he had left. I was trying to explain what this trip was about to him, saying I want to understand, I want to learn about what it is that makes people keep going, or makes some people keep going in difficult situations. He just looked at me and said: “singing.”


Yes. Exactly.

It's true. Actually, singing is the therapeutic thing that you cannot explain why people do it.

He was playing me these blues songs on his banjo, and I was thinking, actually, yes, the history of blues and going back to the history of the spirituals, fado again, it's like, these things… I guess part why I'm pushing at this is I think that there's a background assumption in the societies that we live in that culture is this sort of surface level, this kind of luxury thing which, when things get really hard, we haven't got. We can't waste resources on things as ephemeral as singing, art, or whatever.

Or collecting stories, or listening to people's stories, I think.

Yes, and as soon as you sit down and think about and talk about this in a historical perspective, it becomes obvious that that's bullshit! I sometimes say that culture is the patterns and the structures of meaning that we make or find in the world and that we live within these structures just as surely as we live within houses or tents or caves. They offer us a kind of metaphysical shelter. We need the part-found, part-constructed patterns and structures of culture, in a really fundamental way. It's whether you've got a story left or not that determines whether you pick yourself up and keep going when your world is falling apart. And at that point, resilience is deeply cultural in ways that are inaccessible to systemic description because inevitably systemic descriptions prioritise the things that can be measured and the things that can be represented in those terms. While what I'm talking about is this parallel domain of things that cannot be measured. Of meaning. Of culture.

So really, what I've been doing is taking this invitation, this suggestion of playing the role of a journeyer in a Guild of Resilients and using that to play with and to explore some of my own preoccupations that are the preoccupations that have brought me into the territory where I guess I would be someone who the FoAM guys would think of to invite to be that journeyer! It's not just opportunistic, though: there is an actual connection between the idea of the guild and this attention to storytelling, and that goes to Walter Benjamin's essay, “The Storyteller,” where he talks about the two kinds of storyteller. The person who stays in one place and is responsible for the stories, the inheritance of that particular place over time, and the person who travels over distances and brings the stories from one place to another. And he says both of these are concerned with things which are quite different to the trivialities that make up news. They're concerned with what's not the here and now and the immediate.

He talks about the medieval guild as having been the social institution which embodied both of those, because you have the master whose workshop is also his household, who is the person who is settled in a place and is responsible for a particular set of stories and practices, a particular culture in that place. And you also have the journeyman, and this funny irony that journeyman doesn't start off being about journeys at all – it's journée, day labourer – but actually very early on, they become travelling journeymen, and so the mishearing of the word acquires its own truth. And the journeymen are playing the role of the people who are going from place to place and therefore acting as conduits of stories.

One of the things that I hope I will get a little more dug into in the writing that I'm going to do now that I've stopped running to a new place every day or two and I'm slowing down a bit, and I'm digesting the experiences of the past few weeks, is one of the things I like about the idea of the guild in many representations of it, without getting too bogged down in how historically accurate that might be, one of the things I like about it is that it suggests a kind of rhythm and a timeliness to the relation between staying put and moving on. Again, the dangers of chauvinism and exclusiveness, there is a danger of the hostility between the settler and the nomad. There is a danger of staging a fight between the social good of staying put and the social good of moving on, and the fact that the FoAM guys framed this as a transiency rather than a residency, I was very pleased with, because that came out of something that I wrote a couple of years ago where I said, to reside means to remain behind. That's exactly the opposite of what we actually do when we go on these residencies as artists. Until we can come up with a more grounded, real way of talking about it, let's, at least, call it an artist's transiency instead. It's a horrible word! Not to belittle the good of moving on, or of passing through for a short time – to recognise that you can bring things and gain things from that, but unless we get the language right, unless we're actually describing it in meaningful terms, then the chances of us paying attention to and learning how to do a good job of moving on or of staying put are pretty slim.

For example, we're in a place where a few years ago, there used to be a war here. I don't know how much you dealt with that media-wise years ago, but as you can see now everything functions quite normally. People have moved on, as you say.

The capacity for moving on – for what can seem like amnesia, even – is both a powerful and a troubling thing in relation to resilience. And this is another conversation that I got into with a few people on this trip. I spent 36 hours in Berlin being taken through all of the amazing DIY, grassroots, creative, collaborative culture that Berlin is sort of this capital city for. One of the questions that I was prodding at there was, how much of the history of what has gone on in this city…how does that create a context for this stuff? Is it totally irrelevant?

If I hadn't chosen to, if I hadn't deliberately absconded from the tour of the co-working spaces and urban gardens and collaboration hubs and pay-what-you-want cafes and so on that I was being taken through – if I hadn't deliberately absconded from that for a couple of hours to go and visit the memorial for Platform 17 at Grunewald, could I have managed to get through my 36-hour whistle-stop tour of Berlin, without noticing that this had been, within living memory of people who are old today, the capital of the Third Reich? That this had been the fault line, the divided city of the Cold War? Is there a real amnesia, or is it actually somewhere just below the surface, part of why the things that are happening in Berlin are happening there? To the extent that there is amnesia, is that a sign of resilience or is that a sign of vulnerability?

A few times on this journey, I prodded people with the question of why does almost everyone in western Europe find it unimaginable that there could be a big war in Europe again? Why do we think that we have escaped from history? And someone said to me, “You should have more faith in humanity!” Well, I have great faith in humanity. I have faith in people's ability to keep going through all of the shit and the ups and downs of history, but believing that we have somehow solved war in this enlightened corner of the world and that hopefully the rest of the world will catch up with that sooner or later… That doesn't feel like faith in humanity, that feels like a totally other kind of belief.

I was talking to people in the hard end of the resilience world who are working at state level with strategic defence policy environments and they've been role playing scenarios in which it's necessary to deploy armies on borders within the Eurozone in order to contain the unplanned unravelling of the Euro. There are plans which exist at some level in major countries in Europe right now for contingencies that it will be more than a week of preventing uncontrolled physical movement of currency across borders, until the reset has been done. Frankly, what history says is that it's easier to take the soldiers out of the box than to put them back in again, and not because soldiers are particularly keen on fighting, on the whole. Being in this region, I visited Sarajevo in 2005, and I remember meeting people who had gone away for a week to stay with relatives out of the country until all of this craziness calmed down. There was no sense to them at the point where they went away for a week that there was a war breaking out in their country. That was not what they saw going on, but they spent the next however many years sat elsewhere, watching on TV screens, while their country was tearing itself apart. That's how history happens. Things are absurd, until they were inevitable.

Do you see that as a necessity, that these things happen? Or is it always a different form in which they can manifest? You say, for example, in Germany, somebody who's young or old or whatever, they have a different view of the future than somebody Czech or in Finland, or somebody in Croatia might have a different view of the future, probably also of the concept of peace, of the concept of war. Have you experimented with these kind of things in your journeys?

I've been trying to reconcile certain things within the journey, one of which is, some of the people I meet and talk to are deeply optimistic, and some of the places I've been to are deeply optimistic. And I find things that are real within the causes for optimism.

In Berlin, I was hanging out with this guy called Jay Cousins who I used to know in Sheffield, he's been based out of there for the past three years, and who's at the heart of all kinds of really amazing, open source social collaborations. Sitting and talking with him, there's real stuff there about new economic models, which, some of which, in our lifetimes, with a fair wind – and even as things get more desperate, I think some of this stuff will become more realistic – we will see come to fruition. Then a day later, I'm in Prague, and some of the people I'm meeting and talking to there, in those conversations, it's a real struggle at times for me to find a way of articulating something which we can agree on means that there is any action that is meaningful in the world, that isn't just lost in the background absurdity of human existence. And trying to hold together both of those things, and how much I agree with those apparently contradictory attitudes and articulations, and trying to recognise that within both of them are sources of resilience.

That actually, the dark sense of the absurd, which does seem to be a motif in Czech culture, it's one of the modes of resilience. Being able to love the absurdity of reality prevents you being broken in some very powerful ways. At the same time, waking up in the morning believing that you are doing work which has the capacity to make a difference to millions of people, which people like Jay and people like Vinay Gupta and others I know who are working on open source social innovation in the light of having some fairly realistic historical models of how much of a mess we're in – that's also a source of resilience. And again, maybe like the virtue of settling and the virtue of journeying, the virtue of seeing the absurd and the virtue of being able to assert the worth of action, even against all of this absurdity, that there are still things worth doing…

Is it like a pose? Isn't it like, believing, deeply believing in the absurd and in the nothingness, sometimes I wonder if it's not just a pose? It's protection, let's just say, it's like a means of resilience.

It's a strategy. It's not prior to or more fundamental than the strategy of asserting meaning. Meaninglessness doesn't precede meaning. Both of them sort of explode out of the void…

They're part of each other.

…Or of an undifferentiated totality. It's only when you assert meaning that meaninglessness comes into being and there's a repeated philosophical error in modern Western culture of thinking that there was meaninglessness before there was meaning. That meaning is, again, like culture, it's a surface layer on top of the abyss of meaninglessness. The abyss swallows everything, including meaninglessness. That's where the paradoxes are reconciled, and that's where the thing of the absurd moves beyond just being a pose, is when you take the attitude that the basic nature of reality is the nature of a joke, and that there are two kinds of people in the world, the ones who get the joke and the ones who don't. Again, having that attitude of kind of getting the joke is a resilient quality, whereas there's a brittleness to trying to eliminate paradox. Trying to eliminate uncertainty. Trying to eliminate contradiction. There's a resilience in somehow sustaining the room for paradox and absurdity as something other than just nihilism.

Don't you think that maybe, part of the whole mess that our society is in is because we make this differentiation in the west that certain things exist apart from their other side?


That things are disconnected, that there's not an organic connection between the mess and the beauty?

That's the bottom line of it – or, at least, that's as deep as I've ever managed to get. We have a habit of taking complex truths and pretending that they are simple fights, so the complex truth is everything is constantly changing, nothing really changes at all, and we break that into two sides and we call one progressive and the other conservative, and that becomes the field of modern politics and then we stage this constant fight between them, as if you could ever have one side win. And again and again, we see this pattern of this attempt to break things, to break the complex, joke-like truth that makes fools of us into a serious polarisation, it's either one or the other.

It's as if you're putting things in the freezer, in those plastic bags. You're putting concepts in plastic bags in the freezer and everything is super-clinical.

And then there's a power cut and it all melts!

What do you do then? Where is the resilience?

Well, of all of the places that I've been on this trip, the place where I was picking up the most fear was Austria.

Tell me why – or in what sense, what concrete examples?

Even by the standards of this trip, it was a very, very glancing passing through. I was in Linz for less than 24 hours, I was there for a wedding, but just in a few conversations with people who lived locally, around the edges I was trying to probe, is there a sense of crisis in Austria? More than anywhere else that I went, what people were saying was yeah, people are terrified. They're terrified they're going to lose this prosperity they still have there. They want to stick close to big brother Germany next door, but they have this apocalyptic fear. And the sense that, the place which has been least affected economically, so far, of all of the places I went to, was the place where there was the most apocalyptic sense of anxiety. Again, it's like – it was such a small sample, I feel preposterous trying to draw any conclusions from it – and yet there was definitely a vibe of that, if you like, in those two or three conversations over the course of that evening. It rings true at a certain level, doesn't it, that…

As long as you haven't seen the breakdown, I guess you're always going to fear it. Like if you see it, like in Fukushima in Japan, what do you have to fear?


Then you can only start rebuilding.

Absolutely. So when I talk about starting organisations as a way to avoid finishing books, one of the more absurd organizations that I was partially responsible for starting – and actually, this was how I ended up in touch with FoAM in the first place – was the Institute for Collapsonomics. Collapsonomics is the study of what still works when the things that we grew up taking for granted fall apart. It started as a joke between a group of friends who had met under rather odd circumstances and discovered that, despite coming from totally different disciplines and life experiences, we'd all developed a fascination with and some thinking and experience around these questions of what still works and what keeps going. One of the ways I talk about Collapsonomics is to say that for countries like ours, today, the challenge is – and I stood up and said this in Brussels at an event that was convened by the Danish culture minister, with all of these Eurocrats, which was quite an interesting experience – I said, the reality in most of our countries today is that young people are growing up poorer than their parents. We're not going to fix that. The only question left is whether we're going to do a good job of getting poorer. We know, at the individual level, because pretty much all of us, if we haven't been through it ourselves, we know someone who has – we know that it is possible to become both materially worse off than you used to be, and your life be more meaningful.

You're saying both are connected?

Well, it's not a direct causal connection, but the possibility is there. So, once upon a time, I trashed my career at the BBC and ended up doing all of this stuff instead. I was a radio journalist for the BBC. It was the closest thing I ever had to a career and a grown-up job. I was a newsroom reporter, I did the occasional news-reading shift, the occasional production shift, producing breakfast news and current affairs programs, I was in the early stages of what could have been a successful career there. And I turned down a staff job at the BBC. In most of the years since, I have earned less than I was earning when I was 25. I've also had an amazing life in that time since. On a one-person scale, I can say it is possible to get poorer, and your life to be more meaningful.

To be happier.

Yeah. To be happier. Can we say that on the scale of a country that might be possible? It's tricky territory, because the game of measuring happiness is a fool's errand, although there are good people trying it. This is my thing of saying, in a Collapsonomics reality, the question is how to do a good job of getting poorer, both individually and collectively. The evidence that we have says that it is certainly possible, so long as one's basic needs are met, to have a life which is more meaningful and materially poorer than you previously had. That's the journey that Europe is on. Resilience today, to me, means that. It means finding the patchwork of things within our cultures, within our experience, that equip us to not fall to pieces when realities we grew up taking for granted are no longer there.

Paul Mason has this phrase, “the graduate without a future,” as the archetypal figure of the world today, that the common source of unrest whether it's in Greece or Spain or the US or London or Egypt is actually the disappearance of the trajectory which supposedly successful young people are meant to be able to see ahead of them in their lives. As that disappears, do we see collapse into social breakdown and depression in both the economic and psychological sense of the word, or is there a regeneration of meaning? This is what I said to all of these Eurocrats in Brussels: “Is there a regeneration of meaning which is still available as a possibility, when economic regeneration as we know it fails?”

Do you, yourself, believe? Is there a regeneration of meaning?

Yes, I think that it is possible. I think that it is quite possible to re-describe the journey that the West has been on over recent centuries as a devastating collapse of meaning. As the liquidation of the hard and impossible to measure in order to create the appearance of growth, which is the increase of the easy to measure. And that the cost of that is the destruction of meaning. Therefore, if the engines of that destructive process are grinding to a halt, yeah, we have the conditions for some kind of regeneration of meaning.

And actually, maybe we can say that, to a greater or lesser degree, regeneration of meaning will happen, and then the question is: will it take toxic or non-toxic forms? Because the rise of some kind of new fascism in Europe, which will probably look very different from the old fascism, would be a regeneration of meaning. It would not be one which we would be glad to see. But the rise of nationalistic ideologies, chauvinistic ideologies, is about providing people with meaning. It's what sustains people when they're not able to substitute more stuff each year. Now, there are less toxic alternatives to that. There are other sources of meaning, but we have to, in a sense, reclaim the ground of culture, because often the Left has bought into an economistic description, an account of reality which treats culture as part of this superstructure over the hard material and economic layers of reality, and therefore, the far right has been the only place from which an articulation of culture as something more fundamental, meaning as something essential rather than a luxury, has been offered.

This is why, if there's going to be some kind of ongoing Resilients Guild in Europe, then its task might be to create a network of people involved in conversations and exchanges and collaborations around the pursuit of a regeneration of meaning. A pursuit which is grounded in openness, which salvages what's been best from the European dream, for all that much of it has been delusion and wishful thinking. That feels like something actually that I could actually want to give to, to try and make happen.

Well, that was what my next question is, actually. How do you see the future of this Resilients Guild?

The conclusion of this project I'm doing at the moment for me will be to try and write up the questions that we need to think about in order to make some good design decisions about what the future of the resilience guild might be. I think that there's a rich potential in the idea of the guild. It has the capacity to be a nice crossing point. It has the capacity to provide a sufficient degree of legibility for individuals and collectively.

One of the things that I used to like about being a journalist was that it gave you a simple answer to the question of why you were asking a question. It gave you a license to be curious. It gave you a license to invite yourself behind the scenes, and I think that it would be possible to construct a relatively light guild structure which, particularly in that journeyer role, gave people a license to be curious – not an automatic right to be allowed in, but an easier frame to explain why you're asking to be allowed in.

I see the beginning of something useful there, but there are questions of rhythm and timeliness around this role. How do you get it right? I think in some ways I've been demonstrating how not to do it, with the kind of absurd speed. It's like when you're a kid and you spin round and round to make yourself dizzy. That's how I feel after the first few weeks. But in terms of the questions I want to frame as what I give back, out of having been allowed to take and play with this role as the journeyer, some of those questions will be about timeliness, both in terms of what's the appropriate rhythm and pace for moving on from place to place, for inviting yourself to stay, for how you make yourself useful or, at least, not a burden in that process.

But I think also there's a question of timeliness in terms of time of life as well. The old guild structure of the apprenticeship, then being a journeyer, and then being a master, reflects three stages in life, and I've been conscious of this on my travels, of feeling actually a little bit out of joint in terms of where I'm at in my stage in life. Five years ago would have been a better time for me, or even two years ago, to be a journeyer. I'm at the point where I'm ready to settle, and to make a household, and to figure out what it means to be me in that phase of life, as opposed to the relatively rootless phase of life. I suspect that there is also a virtue in waiting until one has figured out something about what one's practice is, and developed a certain level of competence in it, before one's going to get the best out of going on a journey like this. So there's probably a window when it's the opportune phase. That, to me, is going to be part of what I try and give back as a set of questions and a framing of how the journeyer role might work in future.

In the same way as I'm quite conscious of the speed and brevity of the visits that I've been making to places as being consciously absurd, there's been a conscious absurdity in the way that the Peregrini have been travelling. I talked with Robert about this and he was intent on taking a stupid amount of stuff, on having – this bit didn't quite happen, but – all kinds of lights on the back of the bicycle that would be powered off the energy of them pedalling, that would be impractical. Building these chapels along the way, there's a deliberate irrationality to that. And there's something interesting there, because that relates back to culture and the unmeasurable. Lacan talks about this, the idea of sacred value being created through actions which do not make sense, either in terms of use or exchange. Sacrifice is deliberately wasting something in order to open up that space of the sacred, which is a space which is outside of the rationality of the grid of economic reality as we know it.

It's interesting as well, to me, that the Peregrini have been reaching for another anachronistic form, just as you can say that the guild is an anachronistic form. Deliberately borrowing from another time, another world, rather than using a more immediately available and modern practice. It's interesting that, again, the Peregrini have been borrowing from pilgrimage. Somehow, it feels like we're all kind of drawn to this idea that we can be truer to what we're trying to do by deliberately appropriating something from another time and place than we could if we framed what we were doing in more rational terms.

Creating a guild is a different kind of decision to creating a social movement, because there's not a consensus that the historical era of social movements as we've known them in the 20th century is over, whereas there is a consensus that the guild belongs to another historical epoch. And that I find striking.

If there is one vision, is there an image you have of the future?

The hope is in the remarkable capacity to keep going. Projects fail. People survive. Hope is people going on getting up in the morning, having children, finding ways to make ends meet. The things that make life worth living have never been the grand goals of modernity, the grand utopias. It's a meal shared with friends. It's telling stories about the hardship or the absurdity or the injustice, and through the act of telling the story, and that being heard and shared, the appeal to something which is hard to put our finger on. But somehow keeping going is its own evidence, its own form of hope, whereas the louder stories of optimism are often people trying to drown out their own lack of hope.

There's a guy who has written a couple of extraordinary books about improvisation that have influenced me a lot, Keith Johnstone, and I got fascinated by improvisation for a whole load of reasons, but not least because it literally means the absence of foresight. Improvisation is the art of living without being able to see what is coming next. It takes improvidence, which is the great vice of capitalism, and inverts it, makes it into a virtue: I'm going to get good at being improvident and develop the skills for being OK with not knowing what's coming next, with not having been able to prepare for the future, because the future is always going to come and surprise us and make fools of us. At a certain point, Johnstone says, “When you're improvising a story, you shouldn't worry about what's coming next. You should be like someone walking backwards, looking for the moment where you can weave something back in from earlier on.” And that moment is always the moment where you as a storyteller or a comedian or whatever and the audience have the best experience in telling of a story. I think that's because meaning has something to do with the coming into alignment of the cyclical and the linear. And we get the sensation of that coming into alignment when, suddenly, something from what we were talking about an hour ago connects back into what we're talking about now, and it feels like the past isn't irrelevant, the past isn't lost.