beyond being positive

A summer spent working in a library writing has left its predictable mark on my tatty mind and my dress sense.  Last week in the London Library I watched with envy a woman researching early medieval textiles wearing her slippers. All I could think was that I wanted to steal them and then crawl into them to hide from my own thoughts.


An indicator of insanity until you realise that whatever the title, writing is essentially autobiographical and in my case something of a penny dreadful. In the words of the psychoanalyst David Morgan, some of us have stared into the abyss and found it staring back at us. Uh huh.



Still, there is nothing like watching the decline of the aristocracy from a leather arm chair in the London Library to cheer up the cockles of a socialist’s heart. Sitting snugly next to Jeremy Paxman post Newsnight smelling of cake (oh the Gods do like a laugh) and David Dimbleby safely nodding off without fear of ground-swelling public opinion. From this vantage point you can also watch the slippery entry of a new aristocracy,  with Oxford brogues and rolled up jeans writing for creative blogs and playing nicely for now with the other working children. Members comment book raging over mobile phones and the noise of women’s voices a commentary on the reality that not much changes in the fault lines of workplace conflict.


Libraries are environments tucked away from the positive psychology police enabling a reveal of the dark corners of the human mind. In this regard, I have seen a man eat his own ear wax and listen sadly to someone who habitually farts in time to music. Toilets a communication of unconscious dirty protests.


Don’t get me wrong, I love the London Library because despite functioning as special measures for the UK’s CBT rejects it is also my panic room. Much like psychoanalysis, it provides a place where I can think the unthinkable in all its politically incorrect glory.  In psychoanalytic thinking  libraries are temporary organisations where our fevered brows can rage against the machine without loss of a contract of employment.

The Group Relations tradition was developed out of the second world war by the brave men and women who built the Tavistock Clinic. A long way from its current political ambiguity, it provided a space for the political heavy weights of Bion and Jacques trying to help traumatised people reconstruct themselves and their productive lives.

This tradition, remembered through the institutions of the Tavistock Institute and Tavistock Consulting, speaks to the world of work in a recession where finding safe places to say whats really going just don’t exist. We are all numbed into silence over the realities of work intensification and bullying behaviours from the executive top to the zero hour contract bottom.

This leaves us with a reality that in a time of austerity most of us can’t afford to be honest in our organisations. We don’t go to HRM to float ideas about retaining our humanity and it’s the stuff of superheroes and crazy ladies to raise the issue of bullying at a staff meeting.

One of the concepts used in this tradition is Winnicott’s idea of transitional spaces, an ‘in-between’ place for groups of people to meet and say what was on their minds. Places of safety neither work nor not-work that don’t deny our intense feelings of loneliness and isolation combined with the contradictory anxieties we all have about being in groups.

Transitional spaces are precious places for development. At Surviving Work the best educational stuff I’ve done has taken place in these spaces. Forgotten offices or the blogosphere, places where people can step outside of their open-plan-close-minded offices to think about the painful stuff of gang warfare at work without having to sign off from the human race.

Libraries, like workshops or working groups, can offer us much needed transitional spaces where we can think and talk about work without the censorship of our superegos and supervisors.



The fact remains that most of us have things to say about work that are important and precisely for that reason can’t be heard in meetings. Being on the recessionary front line means that we are allowed to reserve the right to choose the spaces where we slug it out. So if what’s important isn’t on the workplace agenda we have to find the transitional spaces where it is. And now that the smoking rooms have all closed I choose the library. Somewhere I can slip on some psychic slippers and freely roam the catalogues of my experience and my imagination for the benefit of me productive labours and my relationships with the people I work with.


A place beyond positive psychology, imagine that.

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