Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you want to be interviewed, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve is a writer and researcher working in the cultural heritage sector. He writes audioguides and museum interpretation and is currently writing a book about what happiness means to us in a modern context.
He blogs at www.steveslack.co.uk
LLO: Tell us a bit about The Happiness Project you’re working on at the moment.
SS: Happiness is an enormous subject. It’s vast. The more I learn about it, the more questions I have. Down the ages, the great and the good have tried to get to grips with happiness. What is it? How we define it? Thinkers and writers have produced millions of pages on this subject – so much so that I wonder if it’s worth even trying to answer such a huge question that seeks to define happiness in broad terms. Instead, I’m interested in what makes us happy as individuals. So, I started looking at some historical characters and tried to find out what they said about happiness – Aristotle, Henry VIII, Churchill. I found that an understanding of happiness is contextual – to truly appreciate what makes someone happy, one has to understand the world they live in. So one aspect of this project is looking back at some figures from history who’ve had something interesting to say about happiness. These are juxtaposed with the modern section, which involves me going and interviewing lots of people from different walks of life today, asking them what happiness means to them and what makes them happy. The idea is to build up a picture of what happiness might mean to us in a modern context [http://steveslack.co.uk/happiness-project/part-two-contemporary/].
LLO: How do you choose who to interview for your project and what has the response been like so far?
SS: I’ve been interviewing people who have something interesting to say. To be fair, every single person has a unique perspective on happiness – there are no two answers the same. But for this project I’m trying to find people who have a unique contribution. I’ve had to rein it in somewhat, so I’m now looking for people who are living in the UK today. I’ve spoken with a Holocaust survivor, a homeless guy, Woman Farmer of the Year, a hip-hop MC, a psychiatrist, a Buddhist writer, a blind extreme sport enthusiast and more. People are really happy to put their minds to my questions and to talk. After I’ve interviewed them I write up their answers and edit it into a post for the website [http://steveslack.co.uk/happiness-project/].
LLO: Any thoughts on the general state of happiness among Londoners? What could we do to be a bit more cheerful?
SS: Londoners love to have a grumble about the city. It’s expensive, it’s dirty, the infrastructure is ageing and the people are rude. But that’s only one perspective. I’ve lived in London for 12 years and I find that while some of that is true, London is still the greatest city in the world in terms of inspiration and creativity. There’s so much to do here, you can never complain of being bored. From bars and clubs, shopping, some of the best food in the world to an unrivalled cultural scene. I’ve worked in the museum sector for about a decade and I find there’s so much here to keep me going.
There’s a great blog called the Happiness Project London [http://thehappinessprojectlondon.wordpress.com/] which celebrates all of these things and more. It’s a celebration of all the wonderful things to do here and it’s great way to make sure we don’t take London for granted.
LLO: Is there a place you’ve found in London that always seems to make you happy?
SS: I have a favourite picture in the National Gallery that always makes me happy. It’s a picture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Honoré-Victorin Daumier [http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/honore-victorin-daumier-don-quixote-and-sancho-panza] – I don’t know what it is about the painting, but it does something very strange to me. I can stand in front of it for ages and never get bored; I’m just content and happy. I find the combination of colours very relaxing and pleasing and the overlapping lines of the picture never cease to interest me. The rest of the world seems to disappear whenever I’m in the room with it. If I’ve got five minutes spare and I’m near the Gallery, I’ll pop in and have a quick look. My partner recently bought me a framed print of the picture. That made me enormously grateful that someone had gone to the trouble to think about what makes me happy.
LLO: Working in the museum/heritage sector, which London museum is your favourite and can you recommend a good one that’s a bit quirky or out of the ordinary?
SS: The Geffrye Museum [http://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk/] in Hoxton is a real treat. It’s the museum of English domestic interiors. As well as some great displays it also has a charming garden and a great cafe. On the other side of the city I love the calm tranquillity of Dulwich Picture Gallery [http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/]. It’s a hidden gem in London, but it doesn’t deserve to be. The building and gardens are beautiful and the collection – although somewhat obscure – is a time capsule of late 18th-century art collecting. Less than a mile away, but very different in tone, is the fabulous Horniman Museum [http://www.horniman.ac.uk/] with its wide-ranging collection of musical instruments, African objects and natural history.
LLO: Give us a London fact you’ve learned while working that most people probably don’t know, but might put a smile on their face when they hear it.
SS: There’s a stuffed walrus [http://www.horniman.ac.uk/ten.php] in the Horniman Museum’s natural history collection. When the skin was sent to the UK from Canada in 1870 the taxidermist assigned to stuff it had never seen a live walrus. He stuffed it full of filling, like he’d stuff a horse or a dog, until it was completely full. But, of course, walruses are supposed to have rolls of blubber to keep them warm. You can still see the lines in his side where his flab should be, but unfortunately he’s far too big. It’d be a nightmare to undo the work, so he’s left there, looking rather uncomfortable. He’s supposed to be fat, but not that fat!
LLO: Tell us about the most fascinating Londoner you’ve interviewed in your life, either through museum work or your personal projects.
SS:I wrote the audio guide for an exhibition at Lambeth Palace Library recently and got to interview the Archbishop of Canterbury for the introduction. He’s a real pro when it comes to the media – he spoke directly with confidence and ease. And he did it word perfect, in one take. I guess fluent speaking goes with the job! From his study we could see the amazing gardens of Lambeth Palace. Apparently it’s the second largest private garden in London, next to Buckingham Palace.
LLO: Where’s your favourite place to go to unwind over dinner or drinks?
SS: I love water, so I’m often to be found near the river. But in the summer it can get quite manic, so I’ll head back towards my home in south London. Camberwell and Peckham are having are real renaissance right now. There are loads of great bars and restaurants in which to eat, drink and just hang out. My back garden also has a little suntrap, so I can sometimes be found there on a summer evening with a glass of wine, watching the planes heading into Heathrow.
LLO: Favourite London discovery?
SS: I’d always assumed that if you wanted good curry in London you should head to Brick Lane. But I’d never thought of Drummond Street (near Euston Station) until a friend took me there. It’s great row of restaurants if you like south Indian food.
There’s also a great pop-up bar on top floor of a multi-storey car park in Peckham called Frank’s Cafe and Campari Bar [http://www.frankscafe.org.uk/]. It’s a unique blend of sculpture, food and drinks in the open air, with a privileged view of the London skyline.
LLO: What’s the best part about living in your postcode?
SS: Camberwell gets a bad reputation sometimes, but I think it’s a fabulous place to live. It’s relaxed and artsy and has loads of places to get coffee, food, free wi-fi and evening drinks. It’s such a creative area, there’s something for everyone and for every mood. I maintain that the best tapas in London is at Angels and Gypsies [http://www.churchstreethotel.com/restaurant-menu.asp?menu=6332] at the Church Street Hotel. Camberwell Arts Week [http://www.camberwellarts.org.uk/] each June is a real treat – this year we sat on the roof of the church hall and watched movies projected onto the wall at night!
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