A barn owl. Photo: Getty
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A hoot and a half: owls, it turns out, are hard to draw

There is no shortage of life drawing lessons but these seem to be the only classes in which live animals – owls – are doing the modelling.

We sat in a circle on wooden chairs. One by one, we were asked to introduce ourselves to the group and explain why we had come. Finally my turn came and I felt painfully aware of 30 strangers staring at me.

“My name is Sophie. I’m a journalist. And I’m just really into owls.”

On a wooden table in the centre, a fluffy, white juvenile barn owl was greedily devouring a chick, one bloodied leg dangling from its sharp beak. A larger tawny owl tottered around nearby, swaying from side to side. Every now and then, a set of black cages on the floor emitted an angry hiss.

This was the first session of “wild life drawing”, a new series of art classes set up by Jennie Webber, a London-based artist. There is no shortage of life drawing lessons but these seem to be the only classes in which live animals, rather than naked people, are doing the modelling.

The sessions take place at the Proud Archivist, a self-consciously trendy east London bar, restaurant, gallery and general hipster hangout. On the evening I visited, it was advertising a Panini sticker exhibition and “pop yoga” classes for those who want to do their sun salutations to music and while watching psychedelic projections. (Count me in!)

It could not have been a better time to launch an owl drawing class. The birds had been all over the news a week earlier after the Labour Party’s press team tweeted what could have been its most popular manifesto pledge to date: that everyone should have their own owl. Labour later released a statement saying its Twitter account had been hacked and confirming that its “head-turning policy” was “no longer going to take flight” – just two of hundreds of puns circulating online that day. The media excitement at least revealed a national love for the birds.

Yet owls, it turns out, are hard to draw. Not only is it difficult to make a picture of an animal that is shaped like a large blob with two eyes look like an artistic achievement, but you can’t ask the birds to hold a five-minute pose. Their eyes are fixed in their sockets; so, to try to take in their audience, they constantly wiggled their heads from side to side, like a Bollywood dance troupe. Occasionally, one would fall off the end of the table or swoop towards a delighted sketcher.

“Look away now if you’re squeamish!” Webber said each time the owl trainers, from the Sky Bird of Prey Display Team, ripped dead chicks into bite-sized chunks with their hands before feeding them to their noisy charges. The hope had been that the owls might fall into a postprandial trance – but no such luck.

When all six birds had been returned safely to their cages, we placed our sketches on the table while Webber cooed words of encouragement. A few of the drawings were disconcertingly accomplished but she found something nice to say to everyone.

Her own work has a Victorian feel. She produces intricate etchings of wildlife and is also a taxidermist. Taxidermy, like handlebar moustaches and penny-farthings, seems to be another 19th-century trend enjoying an unexpected revival in the city’s creative East End.

The point of wild life drawing, Webber told us, isn’t just making good art. Instead, she hopes her classes will help Londoners discover a love for nature. It worked for me: I dumped my drawings in a bin outside Haggerston Station but now I’m even more obsessed with owls.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt