It’s that time when reviews of the year appear, looking back over the key events, remembering the successes, regretting missed opportunities and lamenting those who have left us. God knows there is plenty to think on from 2016, a litany including Trump, Syria, terrorist attacks across Europe, Brexit, Jo Cox, & the seemingly irreversible descent into polarised factions across the political landscape. Combined with the loss of voices as diverse as Ali, Bowie, Gill, Cohen – it all adds up to a bitter harvest indeed.
2016 is also a year of personal loss for me, with the death of my father in April being a profound & lasting shock. If possible my dad would, no doubt, have enjoyed celebratory dinners & drinks & the company of those closest to him whilst looking forward to the New Year. But my dad died in April, & so this will be another of the “firsts” that people mention when you lose someone close to you – “the 1st year/ Christmas/ anniversary is the worst”, & so on. & this is the first, & quite possibly the last, time I’ve ever written about something so personal in this blog.
Born in 1940, my dad’s childhood was shaped by two major factors: being a “war baby”, & being a son of Stoke-on-Trent. I think this heritage always informed his values, his understanding of the toil & hardship that most families working in North Staffordshire’s pots, pits & steelworks gave him the hunger to succeed. But alongside this grim reality, post-war Stoke was also my dad’s playground, from the terraces of the Victoria Ground to the steep Moorland hills of Brown Edge. What we’d now call “place”, & that feeling of belonging, was second nature to my dad. He might have dreamed of escape from the hardship, but never from “the City”. Always “the City”. Always proud to be a Potter, but not bound by limitations or insularity.
The post-war years of growth, rebuilding & social ambition also, I think, imbued my dad with a spirit of opportunity & optimism. I don’t mean this is in any Polyanna-ish sense, but more in an implicit commitment to work, aspiration and constructive engagement with wider society – family, community, friends.
This is no rose-tinted nostalgia trip. The grief, & the process of coming to terms (whatever that means) with a sudden, unexpected loss, is beyond my capabilities of description. But it seems to include the incredible capacity of the human memory to dredge up long-buried moments of bitterness, disagreements or (in my case) father/teenage son bust ups, & to slap you in the face with them at the most unexpected moment.
But, & this is crucial for why I wanted to write this blog, the grieving process has forced me to reconsider & reflect on the lessons, or perhaps more accurately (he wasn’t a great one for lectures or life instructions) the principles I absorbed from my dad & how they connect to where I go next, & how I think about the future.
So, first & foremost the “urgent optimism” so brilliantly laid out by Marina Gorbis in her piece The Future as a way of life from July this year, & mirroring what I take from my dad’s life, is the North Star. “It’s up to all of us to imagine and create” our futures, as Gorbis says, & “there are seeds of the great, new, and wondrous being planted every day”. In the wake of the tragedies & setbacks of 2016 some of us it may feel as though everything has broken, & that if 2017 does indeed develop into the “year of betrayal” this sense could snowball. We can succumb to disillusionment or we can summon the will to hope, explore, & renew the future. & as Alex Massie has pointed out, 2016 may seem to be a year of national & international disasters but when viewed from a longer lens it may be that “the world, despite appearances to the contrary, really is becoming a better place”. The challenge is how to broaden, deepen & democratise this progress yet further.
Entwined with this is another implicit tenet of my dad’s: the necessity of challenging ideas, opinions, & standpoints. As a child of the 1980s I grew up hearing the miners in my family championing the NUM strike & the opposition to the Thatcher government. The one dissenting voice was, always, my dad’s. Some of this was purely contrarian, to provoke a response & challenge sacred cows (& to be fair, everyone involved enjoyed a good row). But it was also a counterpoint to the dogma of the union leadership: groupthink, & the regurgitation of the party line, no matter what party, was anathema. Think for yourself, try to see things from different angles, don’t receive wisdom – instead test & understand wisdom. As a kid hearing these loud debates I couldn’t understand how the high tempers & harsh words would disappear as quickly as they’d arrived, & eventually the talk would return to the more certain ground of Stoke City’s deficiencies. But the lessons stayed with me.
“Read as widely as you can. Listen to the “other side”. Don’t be a conformist.” Good advice it took me a while to assimilate. Some of this relates to a recurring theme of 2016: that of the echo chamber, via social media or elsewhere, & the polarisation of discourse. The actual extent of this trend is open to debate, but in my view it’s apparent that the willingness to engage across viewpoints, to find common ground & consensus is getting rarer. Constructive challenge or provocation in good spirit is the lifeblood of new ideas. The refusal to listen to or engage with views you don’t share is its antithesis. & so the constant “everyone who says x is wrong/evil/stupid/uneducated/out of touch elitist” etc etc etc drains the well of the energy, serendipity, goodwill & collaboration required for concepts to develop & advance.
So urgent optimism, & the enabling futures to be a “massively public endeavour” as Gorbis puts it, is for me the essential lesson to take forward from 2016. In the last piece I wrote, I set out the concept for Humboldtweb, a new forum & think space for ideas, conversations & projects working towards an understanding of the new landscapes around us. It’s taking a little while longer to get there than we’d hoped, but we’ll be launching soon. I hope that, in some part at least, this can be a tribute to the memory of my dad & his principles of hope, learning and challenge.
Here’s to the New Year.
The website will be live shortly - in the meantime if you'd like to get involved please get in touch via this blog or via Twitter @futuresinfinite & @wearehumboldt
 These episodes, & the sheer absurdity of trying to explain or understand what’s going on during grief, are explored in Helen MacDonald’s “H is for Hawk”, a truly mesmerising book that I kept close to me during the worst times.
 A quick aside – there has to be a better phrase than this, surely?
 Exactly the kind of phrase, btw, that would have my dad’s eyes rolling.