Do Nothing

So, here’s a book I wrote last year.

It’s called ‘Do Nothing: An alternative approach to life for people who do too much.”

There are only two copies of it in existence. And I haven’t got either of them.

It started off as a silly/serious/perfect idea.

I was sitting on my bed. Half-meditating (not very successfully). And I glanced over at a little picture on my bedside table that I’d made about a year before. It’s just the words: MY CREATIVE FIELD, NOTHING, EMPTINESS, SILENCE and spinning. And some splodges from a very leaky pen that a friend had given me as a present. It was one of those absent-minded things that just emerged half of its own accord. But, when it arrived, it captured something for me: that, though it’s often hard to explain exactly how, a lot of my work is kind of grounded in doing nothing. (I wrote a little bit about it earlier this year.)

And as I was sitting there, half-meditating, (not very successfully) and glancing over at this drawing, I felt this full-fledged frustration: that I so easily feel and see the benefit of doing nothing, but that a lot of the time in work I would still find myself pushing and trying and doing. Even though I kind of knew those weren’t the best strategies.

And then this perfect joke popped into my head.

I should go to the DO Lectures in Wales and stand for doing nothing.

The DO Lectures: Inspirational talks from passionate, creative people. The idea is a simple one. That people who Do things, can inspire the rest of us to go and Do things too.

It felt like a joke, because it was so neat. Maybe joke isn’t the right word. I don’t know what the right word is. But a thing that makes you laugh because it feels so sweet and perfect and spot-on.

To go and stand for doing nothing. I felt a huge sense of relief - all of the frustration gone - as I saw the scene in my mind. To walk to the stage. To stand at the lectern. To have prepared nothing. And to do nothing.

Not as a gimmick. Not as a gag. But as a heartfelt offer. To offer the other side of the coin. To say: it’s also OK to not Do things.

From teaching and stand-up and improvisation, I know how easy it is to fill time just out of nerves. I know how easy it is to prepare material and then deliver that material and reveal nothing. To not be vulnerable. To not really be present. To use stories and smart words and preparation as a defensive measure. And as teacher or performer that means you can be safe. That means you can go up and be there and not die. But people don’t go to a performance to see someone hiding. The magic begins when you can stand up and not hide. Stand up unprepared and open and defenseless.

That was the gift I wanted to bring.

The moment the thought entered my mind, I dropped into this wonderfully lucid meditation. Eyes open. Relaxed. Peaceful. Happy. Just from imagining the feeling of what it might feel like to go and stand for doing nothing in the midst of a day devoted to doing. It felt good.

In that moment, it felt like something resolved. I had found a story where doing nothing could be genuinely valuable in the world. A perfect opportunity. Something I could stand for.

And then, happily, one of my favourite things in the world happened. I had a really silly idea. I knew the one person that I had to tell it to. And when I told it to them, they took it absolutely seriously.
So, thank you Curtis James for saying, yes, absolutely, of course you must go to the DO Lectures and stand up for doing nothing. And, yes of course the best way of getting the chance to do that would be to mock-up a DO Nothing book (in the style of the DO Lectures series of books about doing things).
And thank you Emily Macaulay for also taking it absolutely seriously and – just for the hell of it – handcrafting these two immaculate copies of a book about doing nothing.

Front cover - the title and a beautifully rendered, swooshy, flowing Zen ink wash swirl.

Back cover - a full exposition of why doing nothing matters:

“Whether it’s Archimedes in the bath or Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, some of the greatest breakthroughs in human history have been made while people were doing nothing. But in a world where we’re all permanently connected to everyone and everything, the undisturbed wildernesses of bathtime and downtime are increasingly under threat.

This drive to always be doing something started out as an Industrial Era dream of never-ending progress and ever-increasing output. But that dream has long since passed its sell-by date. Now, as we devote ourselves to productivity for its own sake, our busyness serves only to put our lives and our world under ever greater stress.

But there is a way out.

You can tap into a deeper creativity. A way of working that goes beyond productivity. A way of life that leaves space to dream and time for yourself.

And everything you need to get started is contained within the pages of this book.”

And inside - all the pages are blank. Of course. Haha.

It’s quite a funny object in the end. Because there’s not really very much difference between it and a blank notebook. But it would feel SO, SO wrong to write in it. It is a book. It’s finished. It’s not meant to be filled up with more. It’s just that each page has chosen to keep its silence. Something like that.

So, anyway, I sent one copy to David Hieatt, the founder of the DO Lectures. And I sent one to my friend Thomas, who wrote a terrifyingly smart (and very short) book called ‘Nothing: the building block of the universe’.

And Thomas was grateful. And David was impressed.

And nothing happened.
There was a little back and forth on email. About the book. About a lecture.
But nothing came of it.

So I didn’t go to Wales. And I didn’t stand up.
I did even less than that.


If you’d like someone to make a beautifully crafted book for you, get in touch with Emily: http://www.stanleyjamespress.com/.
And if you’d like to go hear people talking about doing things, head this way: http://www.thedolectures.com/
And if you’d like to do nothing, then do nothing.

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A tree story

I wrote this story for the About Trees exhibition at the Paul Klee Zentrum in Bern. 

22 November 2015

Tree Story: Wassailing

“I have a surprise for you. Are you up for that?” I ask her.
Yes, she says, without hesitation. She loves surprises.
We’ve been seeing each other for five weeks.
We’re at her place and I have a plan.

I tell her we need to head outside and that she should choose where we go. She asks how she can choose where we’re going when she doesn’t know what the surprise is. I tell her I trust she’ll pick somewhere good. She plays along and we head out into a misty, autumn night, walking through the side streets of her north London neighbourhood. We arrive at a line of old, beautiful trees along the north side of Hampstead Heath. Frost hangs in the air. Street lamps glowing between the trees.

“We’re here,” she says. I tell her it’s perfect.

I ask her to choose a tree. We head to a huge oak about halfway along the avenue. We stand facing this giant and I take from my bag some string, some bread and a glass bottle of cider.

This is wassailing, I tell her. An old English tradition of tree worship.
She’s from Italy and has never heard of it. I really only know her as passionate, argumentative and endlessly stubborn in holding rational positions. But now her eyes are shining.

We tie the bread to the tree with the string.
We pour the cider around the roots.
Then we sing to the tree.
‘You got the love’ by Florence and the Machine.

The bread hanging in the tree will attract birds.
The cider round the roots smaller creatures.
Fertilising and aerating the soil.
And while the bread and cider make sure the animals take care of the tree, the singing does the same for the humans.
Give a tree a little appreciation and it can be the start of a beautiful relationship.

We walk down the line, ‘watering’, tying and singing.
It’s soft. It’s magical.

We walk back to her flat, wassailing all the way.
We sing to the tree that she can see outside the window of her flat.

And she stands in the moonlight.
Beaming.
She looks five years old.

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The order of St Michael

 

Output from a coaching session with an old friend in November, 2015, in Zurich. Exasperated looking back on a lifetime of purposeful productivity and meaningful entrepreneurship and comparing it with a much quieter, less productive present, my friend was looking for a way to get past her frustration. As she told her story, I picked up my iPad and made this. It’s now her screensaver. And is also available as a lovely postcard.

“The Order of St Michael (Fuck The Past) featuring Josse Lieferinxe’s 15th century depiction of St Michael killing the dragon, currently on display in the Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon.

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Tender and Private

A piece of money art made for Burning Man 2012. Charcoal and a dollar. 

Exhibited as part of The Exchanghibition Bank’s Transformoney Tree.
And, as far as I'm aware, it was then burned in the desert.

  "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private."

"This note is legal tender for all debts public and private."

Kiss Here Today

February 14th. Probably 2005. A kissing booth outside the machine-gun guarded gates of Downing Street. Venice has the Bridge of Sighs. Paris the Eiffel Tower. But where is the most romantic spot in London? We decided to start a new tradition: inviting tourists to kiss in front of Downing Street, have a Polaroid photo taken and then chalk a white cross into the road beneath them. It definitely wasn’t an anti-war protest, as protests outside Downing Street had recently been banned. And what kind of monster would ban a kissing booth? On Valentine’s Day? 

The kissing carried on all day until a policeman, seeing the growing field of chalk-white crosses on the pavement on his CCTV monitor, got uncomfortable and closed it down. 

Concept by Charles Davies. Execution by Bryony Henderson.  

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The Chameleon

An improvised performance in a forest in Holland.

"My name is Charles Davies. And I'm a chameleon. A chameleon is a special kind of lizard that can change its appearance to blend in with its surroundings. Some people say a chameleon doesn't have any special powers though, and just hangs out near things that are the same colour as it..."

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Flying Underground

Travelling at speed in a tube deep under the city is miraculous. But it’s easy to forget how special it is. A reminder: provide air hostesses to hand out tea and coffee to early morning commuters. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. We are now travelling at a depth of 150 feet. The crew will be coming through the cabin shortly with a selection of hot drinks...”

Bear & Owl

An experiment. Probably 2004. 

What happens if you dress up as animals and walk around London for the day? Not handing out flyers, not promoting anything - just having a day out in London.  

Short answer: school children will attack you, builders will defend you, pizza delivery men try to run you over, businessmen hug you, bus drivers don’t blink an eyelid.  

Conclusion:  London runs on autopilot, but there is no autopilot setting for meeting a giant teddy bear, so everyone has to make it up on the spot. 

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