London’s School of Life

Equal parts self-help, continuing ed, and highbrow social mixer, the School of Life is an idiosyncratic temple of the mind.

From the street it could be any chic boutique—walls painted in caca d’oie, a leopard-print chaise longue, a tiny grove of birch trees. But the merchandise in this Bloomsbury shop is for the “inner” man, or woman. Books, arranged with sparse elegance and presided over by a stuffed raven, are organized by the problems they address: “how to survive melancholy” or “how to be green on the cheap” or “how to enjoy your own company.” There’s also a counter where one can sign up for secular sermons (Alain de Botton on, say, the Virtues of Pessimism) as well as for classes on politics, family, work, love, and play. Appointments can be booked with a roster of expert therapists, and reservations made for “conversation dinners” or exotic trips that often don’t require leaving Greater London.

Welcome to the School of Life.

Founded and run by Sophie Howarth, a former events organizer at Tate Modern, the school boasts a faculty of prominent writers, artists, and thinkers, among them De Botton, Geoff Dyer, David Gale, and Martin Parr. The idea behind the venture was to provide a kind of continuing education in the life of the mind, somewhere between the dry remoteness of academe and the greasy pushiness of self-help. “I wanted,” says Howarth, “to offer people an emotionally intelligent environment in which to look at the world around us in fresh ways.” Howarth’s venture has been a hit since its opening day last fall—when the shop was besieged by 1,000 people—with many of the classes, dinners, trips, and talks selling out well in advance.

The school’s always-packed $75-a-head dinners are usually held at Konstam at the Prince Albert, an ecoconscious restaurant that serves only food grown within the area covered by the London Underground. Along with plates of grilled pigeon and roast-onion-and-hazelnut salad, guests are presented with a menu of conversation-starting questions and aphorisms, such as Gertrude Stein’s “We are always the same age inside.” Also immensely popular is the bibliotherapy service, which prescribes books for individual worries. For $50 you get a consultation session with a specialist, who then provides a list of titles with explanations of why they have been suggested. Talking to Howarth, a ringer for the young Julie Andrews both in optimism as well as looks, one can easily believe that the literary medicine her “apothecary of the mind” offers will not only go down without a spoonful of sugar but will achieve the desired effect.

Figuring it was probably time to freshen up my own house of the mind, I decided to give the School of Life a go. My introduction was a class on commitment, one of six weekly two-and-a-half-hour sessions that make up the Love course, held in the large classroom in the school’s basement. The teacher, Mark Vernon, a former Anglican minister and the author of books about friendship, religion, and business philosophy, began by asking our group of 14 what we look for in a relationship: “Hands up, all those who want monogamy.” The women’s hands shot up; the men’s rose more slowly. One man’s hand went up only as far as his chin, where the tip of his index finger rested until, under the glare of his female neighbors, he made it unanimous.

After considering the semiotics of several portraits of couples, Vernon explored the varying attitudes toward marriage held by the Greeks, who accorded male friendship equal status with marriage; the Romans, who gave women more power, but, as Vernon noted, “men could kill their wives with impunity”; the Christians of the Middle Ages—“as God loves the Church, so husband loves wife”; and the modern nuclear family. John Stuart Mill’s marriage to Harriet Taylor was held up as a particularly happy one, Mill having declared that his wife “possessed in combination the qualities which in all other persons whom I had known I had been only too happy to find singly.” Vernon added that a lot of people who met Harriet thought these qualities existed only in her husband’s mind.

Following a discussion period and a break for canapés, cheese, and wine, we heard David Peebles, chaplain of the London School of Economics, speak about how personal relationships have internalized the market economy and the importance of “negotiation of need, a space in which there is the possibility of surprise, of noticing the other person again.” The chaplain got a good hand for this inspiring stuff, and I was sorry I would not be there for the following week’s class, “Sex: Is It Overrated?”

Next I signed on for one of the school’s outings, which are intended to reveal the oddness and complexity of places we take for granted. This one happened to be a sociohistorical journey up the M1, Britain’s first major highway, opened in 1959. With a dozen intense-looking participants, I boarded a minibus guided by David Lawrence, the author of a book about motorway service areas, for which he logged 8,000 miles. While expounding on the politics and economics of mass transit and the vanished glamour of motorway dining (Tom Jones and the Beatles ate at the once-trendy Newport Pagnell stop), he pointed out mock-Tudor villas and a Neo-Georgian McDonald’s. He also passed around photos of the defunct Robin Hood roadside restaurant, where the waitresses dressed as Maid Marian, and another that resembles a space station, said to be haunted by the ghost of a worker who fell into a cement mixer.

At one stop we were given a tour by a droll manager who, asked if any births had occurred at his service area, said, “No, but I think some got started in the car park.” At another, Edward Platt, author of Leadville: A Biography of the A40, a touching book about people who live at the edge of a motorway, met us to discuss the human cost of highway construction. Alain de Botton then greeted us at Newport Pagnell (the restaurant is now, sadly, a KFC), where fans brought out copies of How Proust Can Change Your Life for him to sign. As cars only a few feet away whooshed by the glass-walled café and workers in kids eat free T-shirts briskly strode past, De Botton spoke on the architecture of dejection, typical of a Protestant country (“Feelings that uplift us are not inspired by grand, noble buildings but come from within”); the way the notion of the road has changed from a frightening to a liberating one; and the nature of solitude versus loneliness in a crowd (“These places could be the visual equivalent of a good Leonard Cohen song”).

The best part of the tour, culturally and gastronomically, was a London landmark, the Ace Cafe. This mecca for motorcyclists appeared in the 1963 film The Leather Boys and has changed little since, its big, shiny jukebox pumping out tunes by the Temptations, the Ronettes, and the Ramones. It was packed with bikers and local families out for a classic British breakfast. As our group tucked into eggs, sausage, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, black pudding, and fried bread, I was finding the gaudily dressed bikers and the rock and roll, both of which I despised in adolescence, quite diverting. I went to feed the jukebox and wound up in a sociological discussion with a biker who had driven more than a hundred miles to get to the café and told me his machine could get up to 165 an hour. I was becoming really interested in the various ribbed, padded, and ventilated areas of his leather suit when I was firmly told that it was time to get back on the bus. Perhaps I was taking philosophy-in-action too far.

Improving the life of the mind is a seven-days-a-week job, and the School of Life, having decided that the godless need a better place to go on the Sabbath than the shopping mall, offers secular sermons on Sunday mornings. I attended one—brilliantly timed, shortly after the stock market imploded—at which Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler, delivered a talk denouncing greed. Holding up the medieval society as a better model than the capitalist one, he told us that Jesus and John Lennon were right: “The antidote to capitalism is love, in the sense of charity, loving your neighbor.” Hodgkinson acknowledged that something more than exhortation was often necessary. “Drink is very useful. Rent your village hall, cook a joint of pork, and buy a barrel of beer.”

The service was bracketed by the Hackney Secular Singers, who performed a cappella (with lots of whistles and ba-bums) Lou Reed’s “Sunday Morning” and the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love.” Two pretty girls in braids, wearing white frocks with appliquéd red hearts, were on hand to embody Guatemalan worry dolls, traditionally given to children for confiding their troubles. We were asked to write ours down on folded paper dolls and hand them over. By the time most of the audience had left, one of the girls told me solemnly, “We have taken away many sins.” A quartet of tea ladies, in long skirts, headscarves, and big glasses, poured cuppas and distributed Nice biscuits, which for the occasion were pronounced like the adjective, not the city. I met a man who told me about his plan for a festival on a Dutch farm—“not just Slow Food, but slow everything”—and a photographer who was very taken with the way the idea of a sermon had been “not just deconstructed but reconstructed.”

Over the ensuing weeks these experiences acted as a kind of timed-release mental drug, trickling into the way I looked at things. Motorways no longer seemed like simple ugliness. I realized that I haven’t read nearly as much history as I should, and I started to collect a wider array of opinions on current issues. And, not least, I vowed to pay more attention to my inner biker chick.

Social Studies

The School of Life’s regular courses on major life issues—politics, family, work, love, and play—can be taken on a weekend or over six weeks ($285). Reserve early for the dinners held twice a month at Konstam at the Prince Albert in King’s Cross or the Frontline Club in Paddington ($75 per person). Upcoming holidays include “Simple Living with Tom Hodgkinson,” editor of The Idler and famous advocate of taking it easy. The weekend (July 10–12) at his farm in North Devon promises “skimming stones, star gazing, feasting on food from the farm, and singing along to Tom’s ukulele” ($220). There’s also the popular bibliotherapy service (from $50), if you’re looking for reading advice, and an always intriguing schedule of expert talks, performances, and sermons ($15). The school’s charming Bloomsbury shop, meanwhile, sells books organized by different interests as well as specially curated gift boxes ($50–$110) and posters of the clever aphorisms that are hung in the front window each day ($3). We’re fond of Jenny Holzer’s the mundane is to be cherished. The School of Life shop (Monday–Friday) is at 70 Marchmont Street, London. For details on courses, trips, and events, visit Call 44-207/833-1010 to book.