In 2008, Juliet Russell, Diccon Towns and I set up Salon London to get Londoners together with academics, experts, authors and their ideas in locations across London. Our thinking was that by presenting ideas in relaxed settings, our guests had a better chance of using up to the minute ideas from science and academia in their day to day lives.
We had always been interested in psychology and psychiatry as keen observers — but our day jobs (as a writer, and as a musician) left us little time to find out what was happening in the worlds beyond our own disciplines. We wanted ideally to venture into the sciences and see what was happening in other people’s fields and if we could use that info in our own lives.
When we launched Salon London we quickly found an audience that felt the same, and fairly soon psychology and neuroscience became a spine throughout our programming. This was because our audience (like us) didn’t want prescriptive ideas of ‘how to’ live their lives — they intuitively knew health and happiness can’t be hacked! — instead they were looking for the best information available to understand the world, themselves and their relationships and intuitively find their own ‘way’ through life.
We found out years later that this was typical of more ‘eastern’ philosophical approach of how to live. We really liked this approach as it seemed to indicate that there were many different ways to live if you looked for them.
In the decade that followed there certainly seemed to be a huge cultural shift, with more and more people seeking out different ideas for how to spend their time on the planet. Salon London attracted an interesting and interested audience, one keen to learn about new approaches and influences. Looking back, I really think we have played a tiny part in this cultural shift — being a signpost people could use to find their way to new ideas.
And for me, a decade on it is that excitement of being able to connect people with an idea, an expert, a book that has the information they need for whatever they are facing in their life at that moment that still makes me happy. It’s just so joyful to connect people with the information they really need from an expert doing the research.
Over the 12 years we’ve been in existence, we’ve worked with many brilliant academics, authors and experts: Carmine Pariante, Ian Robertson, Sophie Scott, David Nutt, Gustav Kuhn, Philippa Perry, Barbara Sahakian, Elaine Fox, Catherine Loveday and Gina Rippon and we discovered the huge joy of working with experts is the passion they have for their subjects.
We also learned how to bring their ideas to life in an immersive and interactive way creating accessible Salons — and a number of PhD subjects were decided by people who’s interest in their subject was ignited by our Salons, including the relationship between nature and wellbeing, and where memory is held in the brain. But we began to realise it didn’t make sense to be exploring such big ideas only in the capital and so we started branching out to music festivals and soon we were packing out big stages with Salons on ‘stress’, ‘genetics’, and ‘false memories’.
The work we’ve done as Salon London in festivals has been extraordinary — a kind of rock and roll public engagement, we have introduced thousands of people to new ideas from science and neuroscience at festivals such as Latitude, Wilderness, Blue Dot and Festival No 6.
Working with serious academics in festivals has had its moments, it’s very disarming — you get to know someone very quickly when you’re sharing a dressing room, your stage suddenly floods or by answering a serious question by someone dressed as a badger!
However, we began to see there was an increasing appetite for quality scientific information about mental health and on reflection we could see why.
As the speed of our efficiency kept getting faster many of us were living our lives at such a pace and demanding so much of ourselves, without ever really giving ourselves the time to recover from the demands we put on ourselves. Living at such a relentless pace good mental health was tricky to maintain, but people wanted scientific evidence alongside their meditation or mindfulness. We also began to see that addressing this properly in a couple of hours in a field or in a London club was impossible.
So seven years ago, to enable us to go deeper in to our subjects and to spend more time discussing the big ideas with the experts doing the research, we designed and set up our own ideas festival The Also Festival. This way we could take what we were doing in the city as Salon London (and now with Salon North) to a three-day setting in which we could go much further.
The ALSO Festival sits in 50 acres of parkland sculpted by Capability Brown on the banks of a lake about an hour and a half from London. Here we had the ability to let ideas run wild — so we did — we rowed neuroscientists into the festival to rapturous applause, we put on midnight sessions on quantum theory, explored how sound works in the brain in immersive sessions in our disco bunker and even floated serious psychologists and their audience on a lake for guided meditations. In doing so we gave people a much bigger chance to come to spend a bit more time with the ideas in a relaxed setting and spend a bit more immersive time with the big ideas of our time.
Seven years on we are now putting on a fully-fledged festival rated as one of the best boutique festivals in the world with over 250 sessions from gong baths to epigenetics to grime music. But our new extraordinary finding was not from one of our 7 stages; it was seeing how transformative our natural setting was to the mental health of our guests.
Our audience arrives Friday stressed out from the working week- and yet after three days they left us relaxed and happy — even if they didn’t go to any of our sessions on mental health. So we decided to explore the relationship between nature and mental health by making it the theme for our 2019 Also Festival.
Using data from Japan’s national public health program (in 1982, Japan made shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, part of the national health program, and promoted topiary — the art or practice of clipping shrubs or trees into ornamental shape — as therapy) we brought many experts in to the festival to explore the relationship between our health and nature, including Tony Juniper, Mark Maslin, David Lindo and Shirley Gleeson.
It was extraordinary to curate a three day programme around this theme and in doing so we enabled hundreds and hundreds of people to reconnect with nature in many different ways.
This year we are building on the role nature plays in health by looking at the inter dynamic nature of health and mental health from nutrition and physical wellness. This is because it has not been joyful watching the health and wellness industry explode with social media being a useful tool for disseminating ideas but not necessarily by experts or those backed up by evidence.
Food and exercise has become complicated and elitist ‘wellness’ is bound up with eating superfoods, and doing expensive exercise classes in sculpting leisure wear whilst posting it all on Instagram. This one image of health seems to be so, so prevalent it seems to be skewing the way we look at what it means to be well, and we really wanted to tackle that as a big theme of our programming in 2020.
So, we’ll be drawing attention to the value of strong relationships and community and altruism. We’ll be talking up choirs and eating together and walking in nature and swimming in the wild and not even noticing you haven’t been on your phone for three days.
We are currently programming hard as the festival is just over six months away : 3rd — 5th July 2020.
Back in the city, we’ll be kicking off the new decade of Salon London on 16th January with InSPIre the Mind Editor, Prof Carmine Pariante, and Prof Catherine Loveday, who are going to be helping the Salon London crowd to understand the complicated subject of stress and the brain at the h Club in London’s Covent Garden. Two brilliant professors who not only can communicate their ideas very well but also want the audience to understand as much as they can so that they can take what they’ve learned and apply it to their own lives. This approach is Salon London GOLD.
I’m hoping that in this way Salon London can help us all start the new decade with a measured approach to stress, one that helps us find the balance between enough to make life interesting but not enough to cause us any problems.
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: We would like to say a big thank you to Helen for writing this great piece. Helen has made great success of Salon London and the Also Festival and it is wonderful to get an insight into such a wonderful organisation. The Stress Salon takes place at 7pm on Thursday 16th January with Professor Carmine Pariante and Professor Catherine Loveday.
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