A Rainy Night in London

Conversation around the kitchen table expands our minds more than any think tank


| March/April 2002


I’ve never been one to put stock in prophecies or premonitions. It’s not that I believe such things are fraudulent. Indeed, I think the world is blessed with many mysteries we do not yet understand. Never would I scoff at anyone else’s sense of what’s to come. It’s just that such things don’t happen to me.

I can think of only one instance when my pyschic radar had an accurate reading on the future. I was on a train barreling through November rain after researching an article at Schumacher College, an ecological learning center in Devonshire, England. I would be spending the night in London at the home of Fourth World Review editor John Papworth before flying home to Minneapolis. Aboard the train, I suddenly remembered that John was a friend of Nicholas Albery, whose writing about social inventions in the British alternative press had captured my imagination. I hurried to John’s house from Paddington Station with the idea that he might phone immediately to see if Nicholas would come out on a blustery night to meet a wayfaring American admirer. I knocked on John’s door with a certain sense of urgency, and when it opened, there stood a man not John with a shaggy mop of hair and a bright smile. "Hi, Jay," he said. "I’m Nick Albery."

We all passed a marvelous evening around John’s big kitchen table, eating hearty stew and fresh-baked bread, making a dent in a jug of burgundy, talking the whole time. I went to bed with my mind swirling, more from all the ideas we exchanged than from the wine I drank. Ever since then I’ve kept a close watch on all the wondrous and wild schemes flowing out of Nick’s Insititute for Social Inventions.

Although I met him only that once, I was deeply saddened to learn of Nick’s death in an auto accident last June. But I am happy to honor his memory by sharing some of his favorite ideas in our cover story on social inventions (see page 50). I trust that Nick’s indefatigable spirit and his never wavering belief that big changes in the world can come about through small, creative acts will move you the same way they did me. And if you are inspired to do some social inventing of your own, please send in your results to our Great Ideas contest (details on page 62). Also see John Papworth’s tribute to Nick (page 60), reprinted from Fourth World Review.

Thinking about this cover story in light of that splendid London evening, I am struck by how large a percentage of the information I find worthwhile comes from outside the usual media and intellectual channels. Remarkable but little-known folks like John, Nick, and the revolving roster of visionaries who teach at Schumacher College each year spark my imagination far more than mainstream media and well-funded think tanks.

That trip to England felt like an intellectual barnstorming tour. Satish Kumar, the Indian-born founder of Schumacher College and editor of Resurgence magazine, spelled out his belief that spirituality and ecology are one and the same, a unified worldview based on wonder at the universe. John, the founder of Resurgence who now pours his considerable wit and wisdom into Fourth World Review, offered the hard-to-dispute opinion that everything in modern society, from grade schools to nation-states, is too big to function with integrity, intelligence, efficiency, or elegance. Nick detailed his thoughts on social inventions as a movement of grassroots creativity providing us with an alternative to the programmed visions of the future cooked up in corporate headquarters, government agencies, and the increasingly chrome-plated ivory towers of academia.