Julia Hobsbawm’s diary: Yanis’s beer mat, hiking off the dumplings and why social health is the next big thing

The European Forum Alpbach in Austria is a sort of mid-year Davos.

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By the time you read this I will be 1,000 feet above sea level in the Tyrolean town voted Austria’s most beautiful village, speaking at the European Forum Alpbach, a sort of mid-year Davos. Mittel-Europe’s presidents, chancellors, corporate leaders, politicos and thinkers all convene under vertiginous peaks, which are blanketed in summer by a sea of geraniums. The evenings are full of the intoxicating human brew Edith Wharton described as “the ineradicable passion for good talk”. The urgency to seek solutions to big political and economic problems goes well with serious schnapps. I spent an enjoyable evening with Yanis Varoufakis here immediately after the Brexit vote as he sketched out on a beer mat his plans for his new political movement DiEM25. Given Austria’s presidency of the European Union this year and the knife-edge stage of Brexit negotiation, there will be especially juicy gossip at the bar. Sadly, there won’t be many British: actions speak louder than words when it comes to going to the heart of Europe to understand what’s what. Maybe they will follow it on Twitter instead: @forumalpbach.

Names Not Numbers

Unusual conference configurations are all the rage. For the first three days I will be leading what is called “Alpbach in Motion” which essentially means hiking off the dumplings by going up mountains with a group of 40 young corporate leaders. I’m also finalising our own annual conference, the private ideas festival I started ten years ago, which has run variously in Aldeburgh, Mumbai and New York, and which resides now in Oxford at the end of September. It began in Clough Williams-Ellis’s Italianate village of Portmeirion in Snowdonia, hence the title, “Names Not Numbers”, after the strapline of TV series The Prisoner, which was filmed there. Names Not Numbers is modelled on an Enlightenment salon, so it’s eclectic to say the least. The topic this year is “Judgement”. The classical scholar Armand d’Angour will open, followed by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Alice Sherwood, David Aaronovitch, the performers Mr Gee and Rohan Candappa, with an interlude for Simon Schama and Martin Sorrell, old childhood friends, in conversation. In between, we will dine at the Bodleian after hours, get a history lesson on spies from Roland Phillips and Rick Stroud, and tune both in and out in a mindfulness workshop by Louise Chester, the guru of the moment.

Triple whammy

I had lunch in London last week with the effervescently brainy Dolly Theis, who together with George Freeman MP invited me to speak at the Big Tent Ideas Festival in Cambridge. I accepted immediately, not because I plan to join the new political party rumoured to launch there but because it clearly rejects tribalism in favour of something far more important: ideas. They have asked me to set out my stall on social health and why I believe it is the next big thing in social and corporate policy. Given that epidemic stress levels cost the economy billions per year, and the world of work is being upended more radically than at any time since the industrial revolution, we need a fresh approach.

My core thesis is that there’s a triple whammy of failure happening alongside the tectonic shifts and instability in geopolitics: modern technology, corporate and political structures have all vastly increased complexity and inefficiency and cause highly toxic and expensive stress in society. Social health is an antidote, using what we now know from behavioural economics, neuroscience and case studies of successful new networked initiatives spanning from Thailand to Teeside to get rapid and radical results. Social Health builds on interventions on physical and mental health pioneered by the World Health Organization 70 years ago, and looks ahead another 70.

Remembering Zoë

This week is the 18th anniversary of the death of my dazzling and troubled cousin Zoë Schwarz, who committed suicide when she was just 27. Today she would have been loved by nine nephews and nieces she never met, who are nearly adult. She would have been proud of the energy her mother, father and siblings poured into creating a thriving charity in her memory. The Zoe Education Trust has nine life-affirming education projects and turns the scar tissue of loss and the life sentence of what ifs? and whys? into something lasting. Helena Kennedy, Stephen Fry and I are patrons. Her sister Tanya drives the projects, which vary from schooling in remote KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, to home-schooling Syrian refugees in camps. Zoë wanted to change the world but could not overcome her inner world. I’m planning a “Zoë in Motion” hike near the charity’s school in Ingwavuma, by the Swaziland border, for the 20th anniversary of her death. Care to join me?

The unsubtlest of scammers

Finally, because it’s summer, there is a tiny bit of time to catch breath. For a spot of clearing up, I tackle my clutter folder. Out comes this: “Hello Dear, Do accept my sincere apologies if my mail does not meet your personal ethics. I will like to assure you that this transaction is 100 per cent risk- and trouble-free to both parties. One of our accounts holding a balance of GBP £7,549,250.00 has been dormant for many years. Please I am asking for your partnership in re-profiling the funds.” This broken-English Gmail correspondent, signing himself “Steve Forrest of UBS Investment Bank”, is a hell of a lot more obvious than the cyber thief who broke into a small building firm’s practice last week and sent my friend a demand for an immediate payment so realistic that it was only after he pressed “send” on his smart phone banking app that he realised he’d been scammed. Well, Edna O’Brien did say: August is a wicked month. 

Julia Hobsbawm runs Editorial Intelligence and is the author of “Fully Connected: Social Health in an Age of Overload”

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?