‘Leave my brain alone,’ the dorky hero says in Peep Show, a Channel 4 sitcom, when mental fitness comes up: ‘I get my brain training from Sudoku and Alain de Botton’s weekly podcasts.’ In truth, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life doesn’t do a weekly podcast, but his admirers could be forgiven for taking the School of Life, a boutique enterprise in Central London, for the next best thing. The great philosopher is listed as founder and chairman among the project’s ‘ambassadors’, and though the entrepreneurial heavy lifting behind it was done by Sophie Howarth, a former curator at Tate Modern, he is very prominent in its PR. As he sees things, the school, which sells ‘programmes and services concerned with how to live wisely and well’, is a step towards ‘an ideal new sort of institution’, a ‘university of life’ that would encourage its students ‘to master their lives through the study of culture rather than using culture for the sake of passing an exam’. Howarth, more ambiguously, has called it ‘the intellectual equivalent of Space NK’.
The school’s olive green frontage is on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, not far from the British Library and the University of London’s central campuses, between an internet café and a hairdresser’s. When I went there a few weeks ago, the Rolling Stones were on the stereo and the assistant sorting papers behind the till seemed happy to let me browse the displays, arranged as ‘a chemist for the mind’, without interruption. There were books, arranged thematically under rubrics: ‘Filling the God-Shaped Hole’ (the suggestions included Augustine’s Confessions), ‘How to Relate to Your Family’ (Tolstoy’s Family Happiness), ‘How to Face Death’ (The Egyptian Book of the Dead). There were lists of events and classes: ‘Ego with Julian Baggini’, ‘Urban Gardening’, ‘How To Be Cool’. There were also some stuffed black birds, and eight birch trunks fixed upright between the floor and ceiling – four in a window bay and four further back near a leopardskin-print chaise-longue. The assistant said that she thought the trees were from a forest in Kent; she didn’t know about the birds.
‘How To Be Cool’ wasn’t until the end of the month, but there was a place left in ‘How to Have Better Conversations’, a three-hour class that evening, which I paid £30.50 for. After going home and paying another £70 online – the quickest way, the assistant said – to book a Bibliotherapy Consultation (‘the perfect way for you to discover those amazing but often elusive works of literature that can illuminate and even change your life’), I went back to the School of Life at 6.30 p.m. and joined my classmates over a buffet of sausage rolls, sliced ciabatta sandwiches and Casillero del Diablo. There were 18 of us, of whom five were men. I guessed our median age as somewhere in the early thirties. People were smartly dressed, as if going on a date. David, our instructor, a writer, fashion stylist and therapist, was carefully dressed too, and his rather priestlike collar and air of great calm made me feel obscurely guilty as he laid out the evening’s programme. Yet apart from one pretty, nervous woman, who spoke of poor communication and a recent bout of unhappiness, few of the punters seemed to take the class too seriously. ‘It makes a change from going to the theatre,’ one said.
The session itself, which blended aspects of night school, group therapy and speed dating, took place in the basement. A mural by Charlotte Mann turned the room into a stage set depicting an upmarket holiday home. David spoke of Martin Buber, played a clip from Annie Hall and threw in some tips for tongue-tied office workers; nothing he said seemed stupid or objectionable. At regular intervals we were invited to pair off and discuss our answers to such questions as: ‘What assumptions do you think people make about you?’ One man said that people thought he was a certain type of person because he worked in financial services; there were murmurs of agreement. Emboldened, he turned out to be an irrepressible conversationalist. ‘But I like the anxiety of unmasking,’ he interjected at one point. He had started a conversation with a stranger on the Tube by saying: ‘I like your socks.’ Afterwards I asked him if he felt he’d got his money’s worth. ‘Oh, well, you know,’ he said sheepishly, and I felt vulgar for putting the question that way.
Having experienced a mild form of transference which had caused me to shift uncomfortably in my chair while David discussed the divided self, I began to look forward to my bibliotherapy session. A few days later I received a questionnaire by email, asking about my reading habits and life situation. By the time I’d filled it out there were no slots for several weeks, and after the consultation it took another two weeks for my ‘prescription’ – a personalised reading list – to come through in PDF format. I should have read the small print more carefully: the one-on-one session, in the same basement room, was, as advertised, a bespoke book recommendation service, with therapeutic imagery as a cute touch only. The consultation involved a cup of tea and a 40-minute chat with a well-read former bookseller who’d studied Henry James with Tony Tanner. She sent me some promising recommendations – William Maxwell, Rohinton Mistry – but I wondered if nearly £2 a minute wasn’t pushing it. (Phone consultations, at £40, are cheaper.)
I asked a friend who’d taught a class there about the School of Life. My friend said that it was like watching people marooned on a desert island doing their best to re-create Radio 4. I looked up David’s blog and found an account from 2010 of going to ‘Filling the God-Shaped Hole’. He too had felt that the attendees were ‘familiar with the residents of Ambridge’; he also recounted a conversation in which the instructor explained ‘how he was using meditation to assist his dealings as a day trader – perfectly personifying the current trend for all things spiritual while not missing the chance to earn some lucre’. The School of Life was launched as a ‘social enterprise’, but on its website now it’s merely ‘a new enterprise’, a shift of emphasis I wouldn’t want argue with. It seemed a harmless way for middle-class people to spend money but not really a step towards ‘an ideal new sort of institution’, except in the sense that ‘a harmless way for middle-class people to spend money’ is the future the government seems to have in mind for humanities departments across the country.