The modern salon circuit: Champagne for the brain

This season’s hottest accessory is your mind. Rebecca Newman explores today’s salon circuit

One Monday night this spring I found myself gazing over the shoulders of the potter and author Edmund de Waal and Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady, as we listened, rapt, to Baroness Susan Greenfield’s views about Twitter.

The venue was packed: elderly gentlemen in horn-rimmed spectacles, modelesque twentysomethings and recent retirees, sharply dressed and clutching iPads. This was one of a series of soirées entitled 5x15 – so called because five lecturers speak for 15 minutes – founded by former Independent on Sunday and Daily Express editor Rosie Boycott with her daughter, journalist Daisy Leitch, and arts promoter Eleanor O’Keefe.

Since launching last year, every 5x15 event has sold out. The gatherings are akin to salon meetings of the 19th century and – along with a flowering of other intellectually uplifting public meetings – form part of a social shift that is gathering pace. “Cool” no longer means designer labels. This summer’s hot accessory is a mind.

“There’s a lot more cachet in having something fascinating to say than in having a sports car,” says Rosie Boycott. “You don’t any longer hear people comparing expensive holidays. It’s wonderful: the impetus has shifted to ideas.”

One key catalyst in the current intellectual updraft is TED, a series of global conferences first held in 1984 that aimed to bring together authorities from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design with “ideas worth spreading”.

TED caught the imagination of the brightest and most brilliant: Bill Gates pontificated on computing; Al Gore had his say on climate change; more recently, TED welcomed Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Initially the conferences were invitation-only affairs, but five years ago TED Talks launched online, and became an overnight sensation. TED’s channel is now the top subscribed non-profit channel on YouTube and has been viewed more than 60 million times. A wide audience downloads talks free from YouTube or uploads them on to smartphones for the daily commute.

Intelligence Squared, which describes itself as the “global forum for live debate”, is another important player in the sphere of intellectual advancement. It provides a platform for leading figures in politics, journalism and the media, and operates with regular meetings in London, New York, Sydney, Kiev and Abuja – and online as podcasts.

Speakers at Intelligence Squared aren’t always invited for their intellectual prowess. On May 25 Hollywood heartthrob Rob Lowe will talk about his memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. He will also be speaking at the Hay Festival, whose title sponsor is the Telegraph, on Saturday May 28.

Boycott’s 5x15, a sister venture of Intelligence Squared, is supposed to be like “reading a really good magazine”. Ideas and knowledge are introduced in 15-minute chunks – easily digestible for the Twitter generation.

“Often someone will articulate a thought and a publisher will demand they turn it into a 500-page book,” Boycott tells me. “But in fact it may well be better explained on stage in 15 minutes.” Costing from £12, the talks are based largely at the Tabernacle – a converted church in Notting Hill, west London.

“Everyone comes,” Boycott says. “The evenings are divorced from class or age. And so they should be.”

In the coming months 5x15 presentations will open the Brighton and Port Eliot festivals – two of the growing pantheon of UK arts-based festivals, which include Hay and the Telegraph’s other sponsored extravaganza at Dartington.

Also taking to the road this summer is the School of Life – a body co-founded by philosopher and author Alain de Botton in 2008 to “bring practical philosophy to everyday living”. Among the range of wonderfully esoteric events are a cycling trip to Wales “to pursue happiness, on two wheels” and an evening perfecting the art of conversation on the banks of Regents Canal in London. The School will be encouraging revellers at music festivals Latitude and Secret Garden Party “to grasp the world’s big ideas, and understand how they relate to real life”.

So why this blossoming interest in intellectualism? According to philosopher and School of Life co-founder Mark Vernon: “We live in a period when we’ve never been materially richer, but we appear to be over-consuming ourselves and the planet.Out of the sense of impending crisis comes the desire to ask again what it is to be human, and how we might live.

“It was the same in ancient Greece, during the period of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Their world was flourishing, but also falling apart due to war. Out of that turbulence came ideas that we still engage with more than two millennia later.”

It’s not all about high-minded philosophising, though; as with anything involving the glitterati, a certain amount of hobnobbing and champagne-drinking goes on. These are social as much as intellectual occasions; conversations could appear studied to an outsider, and the dress code teeters on the self‑conscious. But without the social element, braininess wouldn’t have become so hip.

At last year’s How The Light Gets In, a philosophy festival in Herefordshire, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey strolled about in a suit and Converse trainers, expounding his vision for A Change of Culture, and Laura Marling, the 22-year-old Brit-award-winning folk singer, postponed her departure because she was having too much fun.

This year some 20,000 visitors are expected. Late into the night, the event’s organiser Bianca Brigitte Bonomi finds participants lying back in deckchairs or on the grass to consider what more there may be in Heaven or Earth.

“It does seem there’s a trend from matter to mind,” concludes another speaker, author of Breakfast with Socrates, Robert Rowland Smith. “Many people are crying out for meaning in their lives. And although downloading podcasts or going to festivals doesn’t provide meaning per se, it does provide the blocks from which it may be constructed.”

Most viewed TED talks

Tony Robbins: Why we do what we do
Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?
Stephen Hawking: Asking big questions
Gill Bolt-Tayor: How it feels to have a stroke
Johnny Lee: Wii Remote Hacks
Pattie Maes: Unveiling
Theo Jansen: The art of creating creatures 
Pilobolus: A performance merging dance and biology
Pranav Mistry: The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology
The LXD: Dance n the internet age

Original article published in The Daily Telegraph, in April, 2011

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