Professor of Computer Science and Provost/CEO/PVC, University of Nottingham
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
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According to consulting firm Opimas, in years to come it will become harder and harder for universities to sell their business-related degrees. Research shows that 230,000 jobs in the sector could disappear by 2025, filled by “artificial intelligence agents”.
Are robo-advisers the future of finance?
A new generation of AI
Many market analysts believe so.
Investments in automated portfolios rose 210% between 2014 and 2015, according to the research firm Aite Group.
Robots have already taken over Wall Street, as hundreds of financial analysts are being replaced with software or robo-advisors.
In the US, claims a 2013 paper by two Oxford academics, 47% percent of jobs are at “high risk” of being automated within the next 20 years – 54% of lost jobs will be in finance.
This is not just an American phenomenon. Indian banks, too, have reported a 7% decline in head count for two quarters in a row due to the introduction of robots in the workplace.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. After all, the banking and finance industry is principally built on processing information, and some of its key operations, like passbook updating or cash deposit, are already highly digitised.
Now, banks and financial institutions are rapidly adopting a new generation of Artificial Intelligence-enabled technology (AI) to automate financial tasks usually carried out by humans, like operations, wealth management, algorithmic trading and risk management.
For instance, JP Morgan’s Contract Intelligence, or COIN, program, which runs on a machine learning system, helped the bank shorten the time it takes to review loan documents and decrease the number of loan-servicing mistakes.
Such is the growing dominance of AI in the banking sector that, Accenture predicts, within the next three years it will become the primary way banks interact with their customers. AI would enable more simple user interfaces, their 2017 report notes, which would help banks create a more human-like customer experience.
Customers at Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest, for instance, may soon be interacting with customers with the help of a virtual chatbot named Luvo.
Meanwhile, HDFC, one of India’s largest private-sector banks, has launched Eva. India’s first AI-based banking chatbot can assimilate knowledge from thousands of sources and provide answers in simple language in less than 0.4 seconds. At HFDC Eva joins Ira, the bank’s first humanoid branch assistant.
AI has also made inroads in the investment industry, where, many financial analysts say, a sophisticated trading machine capable of learning and thinking will eventually make today’s most advanced and complex investment algorithms look primitive.
Advisory bots are allowing companies to evaluate deals, investments, and strategy in a fraction of the time it takes today’s quantitative analysts to do so using traditional statistical tools.
Former Barclays head Antony Jenkins, who called the disruptive automation of banking sector an “Uber moment”, predicts that technology will make fully half of all bank branches and financial-services employees across the globe redundant within ten years.
But fintech is so new and diverse that academics are having difficulty to construct a syllabus for Financial Technology 101, let alone more advanced topics on AI. The lack of academic textbooks and expert professors are additional challenges.
Robots gone wild
Still, it is not clear that AI and automation will actually prove advantageous for banks.
Too much reliance on AI could backfire if financial institutions lose the human touch most customers favour.
There are other risks, too. Robo-advisers are cheap and save time when creating a simple investment portfolio, but they may struggle to take the correct precautionary measures when markets become volatile, especially when thousands, maybe millions, of machines are all trying to do the same thing while operating at great speed.
High expectations for the performance of these well-programmed robo-traders could also cause chaos in the key trading centres around the world.
There is no single algorithm that can combine multiple volatile variables with a multidimensional economic forecasting model that works for all investors. Expecting that could prove a potentially fatal error for financial markets.
And how will investors be protected when robots make the wrong decision? According to the rulings of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), robo-advisers require registration in the same way human investment advisers do. They are also subject to the rules of the Investment Advisers Act.
But it is difficult to apply to robots the financial regulations designed to govern human behaviour.
The SEC’s rules, created to protect the investors, require that advisers adhere to a fiduciary standard by which they unconditionally put the client’s best interests ahead of their own. Concerned US regulators have asked whether it is practical for robots to follow rules when their decisions and recommendations are generated not by ratiocination but by algorithms.
This conundrum demonstrates one fact clearly: it is hard to completely replace humans. There will always be demand for a real live person to act as check when and if our robots go rogue.
The question “Who is the greatest living philosopher?” is fraught with difficulty. There is, for starters, very little chance of consensus: Saul Kripke, Martha Nussbaum, David Chalmers—there are just too many candidates for the top spot. That’s before you get into the question of whether it’s possible to provide an objective answer, or whether “greatness” exists at all (philosophers are a pedantic bunch).
This is mind Prospect approached a few thinkers, many world-leading themselves, with a different task: they weren’t to name the “greatest” living philosopher, but their favourite. A thinker whose work particularly challenges them, or who encourages them to up their game. Their answers vary wildly, but all shed some light on the shape of the discipline at the moment—and the types of people working within it.
By Anthony Gottlieb, author of “The Dream of Enlightenment” (out in paperback now)
The most stimulating philosophers tend to be dead. Because my work is mainly in the history of philosophy, many of the living ones whose work I most enjoy write about the dead ones, and I am going to pick as a favourite Simon Blackburn, formerly of Cambridge University and now with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who draws inspiration from the work of the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. Hume is the philosopher with whom I am most often in agreement; Blackburn has helped to show, I believe, how some of Hume’s ideas can be carried forward and brought up to date.
I enjoy reading philosophers who I think are barking up the wrong trees, so long as they are barking well. The benefit of studying the work of fine thinkers with whom one disagrees is that one can stress-test one’s assumptions, and maybe even change one’s mind. But it is also important to read those who reinforce convictions that one already has, because however good you are at philosophy, there will often be better reasons for your beliefs than the ones you have already thought of. It is in this latter way that I find Blackburn’s work on Hume to be rewarding.
In addition to his academic writings—on the nature of moral values, on truth, the philosophy of language, and other matters, often but not always with a Humean twist—Blackburn has written broadly philosophical books on lust and on narcissism. These fairly deep investigations of shallowness require no prior acquaintance with philosophy, and the same is true of his well-known brief layman’s introductions to ethics (Being Good, 2001) and to philosophy in general (Think, 1999.) I admire these introductions for their clarity and accuracy: two attributes that are hard to combine.
Toby Ord and Will MacAskill
by Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book, co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, is “Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction”
If anyone ever asks you whether philosophy makes a difference, tell them about Effective Altruism. Effective altruists aim to make the world a better place by, for example, reducing suffering and improving well-being, whether of humans or of nonhuman animals. They also want to be as effective in achieving this aim as they possibly can be. So if they have money, or time, to donate to a charity, they seek evidence that the charity to which they are donating will use that money, or time, in a highly effective way.
It’s a simple idea, but it is inspiring large numbers of people, in dozens of countries, to live their lives differently, and it has already led to hundreds of millions of pounds being donated to more effective charities than would otherwise have been the case. The result is that those donations do much more good, saving the lives of many more people and reducing far more suffering than they otherwise would have done.
“If anyone ever asks you whether philosophy makes a difference, tell them about Effective Altruism”
You’ve probably already guessed that my favorite philosopher started the Effective Altruism movement. You’re right, except that it was not one, but two, philosophers who were key to getting the movement started. Less than ten years ago, Toby Ord and Will MacAskill were graduate students in philosophy at Oxford. Thinking, as philosophers should, about what it takes to live ethically in a world like ours, Toby founded Giving What We Can, which invites people to pledge to give at least 10 per cent of their income to the best charities they can find. Will started 80,000 hours, an organisation that provides advice to people who want to choose a career that will enable them to do good.
Toby and Will now have academic positions at Oxford, and continue to combine philosophical work with active roles in the Effective Altruism movement. Meanwhile, that movement continues to flourish, thereby demonstrating the power of philosophy to change the world.
by Helen Steward, Professor of Philosophy of Mind and Action at the University of Leeds
Dennett is a remarkable thinker. I agree with almost nothing he has written—but I have learned enormous amounts from almost everything of his that I have read. His earlier work shows the influence of his time at Oxford, where he studied under Gilbert Ryle; particularly notable was his development of a distinctive approach to so-called “propositional attitude” states like beliefs and desires.
I also love (while heartily disagreeing with) his marvellous short work on the free will problem—the beautifully-titled and thought-provoking Elbow Room. His later work has tangled with some of the most difficult philosophical problems there are, including the question of what consciousness is, and how free will might have evolved—always attempting to take into account the state of empirical work in a variety of relevant fields.
This aspect of Dennett’s work is, I think, especially valuable. Many philosophers now attempt to inform themselves of the state of play in the empirical disciplines relevant to their work. Very few have the imagination, philosophical acumen and sheer intellectual talent to be able to explain clearly the current state of knowledge; to distil the wisdom of the sciences for a philosophical (and indeed sometimes for a lay) audience; to winkle out the philosophical consequences of empirical work and present them with flair and panache. He is fun to read, his work always buzzing with ideas, fruitful examples, enlightening diagrams, models and metaphors.
Reading Dennett, you are in the presence of a seriously good mind—one that can do more than lead you step-by-step through a careful argument—one that can bring you on in leaps and bounds to new and exciting conclusions, though not necessarily ones that are in all respects the same as his.
by Charles Foster, a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford
Yet there is one big thing that he gets very right. He does (or purports to do) his philosophising from the bottom up: he starts with (perceived) facts about the world, and only after examining them closely does he begin to think about what those facts entail for ethical decision-making. This is very unusual amongst professional philosophers—most of whom subscribe to or dream up a grand abstract theme, and then ram the facts uncomfortably into it. I suspect that Savulescu’s approach is a legacy of his medical background: rational treatment, for a doctor, follows diagnosis.
“There’s something very Greek about this Australian philosopher”
His view of the facts, though, is often deeply suspect. Many of the facts pertinent to the problems he discusses are facts about humans. Humans are far more complex, charismatic, colourful, and contrary than Savulescu credits. They and their concerns can’t be reduced to forms that slot neatly into utilitarian equations. Identity, in particular, is a fluid, multi-layered, mysterious thing. And that’s a problem if autonomy is your main moral lodestone. Who is this entity whose autonomy should be protected and maximised?
For all that, Savulescu is doing important things. There’s something very Greek about this Australian philosopher. He seems (and again it is terribly unusual) to think that philosophy isn’t a 9 ‘til 5 business. It matters. He’s changed his mind commendably often. He appears to understand philosophy in the old, literal Greek way—as love of wisdom. He has convened and encouraged an academy of people who think he’s radically misconceived.
Another Greek thought that a philosopher’s calling was to be a gadfly. Gadflies infuriate. His effect on me shows that he’s doing his job.
by Sasha Mudd, Professor of Philosophy at Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southampton
I came across Susan Neiman through her book The Unity of Reason (1994) while writing a doctoral dissertation on Kant, and battling a grave sense of disillusionment with the profession. This book was a massive breath of fresh air for me. Neiman—who is currently Director of the Einstein Forum in Germany—does some wonderfully surprising things that I didn’t think a professional philosopher could do.
First, she talks about Kant’s ideas with a passionate intensity that one seldom encounters in the professional literature, an intensity that is too often—and wrongly—associated with a lack of seriousness. We philosophers often feel obliged to write as though we have no particular interest in our subject matter and certainly no passionate feelings about it. In Neiman, on the contrary, I found a shrewd interpreter of Kant who nevertheless wrote about him as though he mattered intensely.
Second, her snappy, stylish prose is immensely enjoyable to read, and is clearly written to be enjoyed. This occasioned another revelation: that it is possible to be serious without being dry, and that the pursuit of truth need not come at the expense of pleasure and beauty—although it often does. Another thing that I admire about Neiman, and that makes her a favorite for me, is that she interrogates past thinkers as though they are a bunch of well known friends. In this vein she shows us that good philosophy is not only—or even primarily—about how clearly one articulates the big ideas but also about how deftly one connects them to present concerns and experiences in all their urgent, messy particularity.
After this first encounter with Neiman, I went on to realise that the moral courage that allowed her to write such an unusual, trend-bucking book marks all her work and has carried her in other laudable directions. Among philosophers it is widely noted that the enlightenment project of constructing a rational morality remains something of an embarrassment even to its most staunch defenders. Neiman breathes unapologetic life into this project in all she does. She speaks to the moral impulses that animate our philosophical projects in the largest terms, when this is neither the “done” thing, nor easy to do.
You’re still asking the wrong question
by Julian Baggini, Philosopher in Residence at The Crick Centre and author of several books, including The Ego Trick (Granta)
It would be deeply unphilosophical to select a favourite living philosopher without questioning the philosophical assumptions underpinning the task. The emphasis on great individuals reflects an emphasis on innovation, an idea that rationality is best exercised in the solitary thinking of lone minds, and an ideal of autonomy in which we should think not just for ourselves but by ourselves. These are not uniquely western ideas and values but they are more pronounced here than elsewhere in the world.
“Authorship of a philosophy resides not in individuals but in groups”
For example, although Confucius is revered in China, he is of secondary importance to the school of thought he helped develop. This is Rujia, or the school of the ru (ru is a scholar or learned man, and jia is literally house or family). Confucianism was a term coined by 16th century Jesuit missionaries, superimposing the western value on founding figures on the indigenous tradition. But Confucius saw himself as a preserver of ancient wisdom, not as a creator of a new philosophy.
In this way of thinking, authorship of a philosophy resides not in individuals but in groups. Philosophising is a quintessentially collective enterprise. In that spirit, I would nominate the East-West Philosophy Center in Hawai’i as my favourite “philosopher.” It is a unique locus for comparative philosophy, a hub for a community of scholars that extends beyond its formal members. In its orbit are exceptional thinkers like the Confucian philosopher Roger Ames and the Japan specialist Tom Kasulis.
Thinkers like these do not receive as much credit as is due in part because non-western philosophy is undervalued but also because they can be dismissed as mere interpreters rather than original thinkers. In fact, all philosophers work in traditions and some of the most creative work has always emerged as a sympathetic response to existing ideas. What is exciting about the work of the likes of Ames and Kasulis is that it breathes new life into old ideas by bringing disparate traditions into dialogue with each other. In contrast, those that plough their lonely furrows risk creeping into stagnation and irrelevance.
is a British author. Her first novel was The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar (2012), and her travel writing and non-fiction have appeared in Vogue, Lonely Planet and the Independent on Sunday. She lives in Worthing, Sussex.
There was a period in my life when I spent a lot of time in hotel rooms. It was normal to skit from Shanghai to Dublin via Vilnius and Rome in a month, and then begin the loop all over again: Athens, Novosibirsk, Kuala Lumpur. I travelled alone to these cities and when I got there I was required to stand on stages, sit on panels and talk endlessly. At the end of each jet-lagged and scrambled day, I would go back to my hotel room where sometimes the mini-bar was stocked, sometimes not. The aircon would rattle, or not work, or be set too high or low with a fixed dial, and I would attempt to relax on an oversized bed with stiff pillows, listening to the TV from next door or to strangers whispering in the corridor.
I lived in a hotel in Moscow called the Cricket for a month. In European countries, I stayed in compact three-star rooms, while in the Middle East it was always big chains: the Sheraton, the Radisson or the Hilton Nile. Here and there, depending on local deals and the nature of my stay, I’d take a room in one of the iconic, colonial-style hotels from the novels of Graham Greene or Agatha Christie: the American Colony in Jerusalem, the Pera Palace in Istanbul or the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. I travelled like this from my mid-20s for a decade. Sometimes I was single, other times in a relationship, and the eternal transience suited me at the start. It was fun, for a few years, until suddenly it wasn’t.
On arrival, I liked to wash away long journeys with a swim in the hotel pool, usually found in the bowels of the building. I would trek along corridors in fluffy hotel slippers, past rows of identical doors, almost naked under the bathrobe, both intimate and exposed. The pool would invariably be empty, and as soon as I took my glasses off I could no longer see the edges of the fake palm trees or the steps to the Jacuzzi.
For a long time, the swimming ritual was helpful. I would cleanse away London-me and become a shiny new, international person. But then in one pool, after a particularly disorientating 18-hour journey, I floated on my back, buoyed by chemicals and water, and heard an odd bright voice in my head offering up a simple suggestion. I want to die, it said. A calm, sane voice, perfectly integrated with the flickering light reflections on tiles and the sound of lapping water, of drips from the sauna room, of taps being turned on somewhere else in the building. I flipped onto my stomach and began a slow breaststroke. Go down, it said, and so I did, swimming underwater with eyes closed until I nudged the edge of the pool just as I imagine a shark might nose against the side of a boat.
The next time it happened, the voice was stronger, and the time after that, stronger again. An insistent, reasonable interior monologue. Where am I? Random swimming pool, random country. Whom do I know here? Nobody, really. Who would miss me? Nobody, really. Go down then, into the chlorine-blue, and let go, said an unambiguous and rational voice that terrified me.
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Aperson is not supposed to be in both Asia and Africa in the same week on a regular basis; the world should not be traversed at that speed. It was scrambling, discombobulating; worse, it was damaging – some central element of my subjective self was being ebbed away. Yet, I still said yes. I was the go-to girl for a last-minute flight to anywhere, and whenever I returned home, lightly tethered to a house-share in Brixton, south London, I plotted to be away again.
When I climbed out of a taxi on my way home, or dragged my suitcase towards my front door, I would think of Jean Rhys, writing in Good Morning, Midnight (1939): ‘Walking back in the night. Back to the hotel. Always the same hotel … You go up the stairs. Always the same stairs, always the same room.’ My life on a loop, searching for the new, but in reality going round in circles.
The mirrors, doors, locks, balconies and bathrooms of hotel rooms became active props and surroundings for the process of ‘going to the other side’
There is a part of the brain called the hippocampus that is shaped just like a seahorse. It is in many ways still an unconquered mystery, but it is believed to act as an internal sat-nav. It provides a crossroads between memory and the processing of location, and not just locations of geography and place – although it does deal in those, contextualising landmark objects and images to understand landscapes, interiors and scenes – but also the mapping of an emotional geography such as future goals and aspirations and how to reach them, or memory sequences, or the systemisation of our own personal narratives. It is how we understand where we are and how we put ourselves into the points of view of others. Depression has been found to have a dampening and distorting effect on the hippocampus, so that we become, in many layers of the word, lost.
I don’t know if my hippocampus navigator was suppressed by too much travel or if I was simply exhausted from a decade of avoiding intimate relationships and any semblance of a stable home. Whatever it was, the suicidal impulse triggered by the architecture of hotels and all the signifiers connected to them – key cards, long corridors, the ting of a service bell – kept growing stronger.
I had been restless for 10 years, swinging between a ‘home’ that consisted of a transient rented room and the never-ending process of arriving alone at an Italo Calvino-esque city of everywhere/nowhere. I was lonely, getting lonelier, and ebbing across to the other side of the mirror with no idea how to stop it happening.
In my final year of intensive travelling, I developed insomnia so acute that the only way I could cope was to read all night and catch up on sleep during the siesta, if I was in a siesta-friendly country, or cat-nap in the late afternoon hours where I was often free before getting ready for evening activities.
During these difficult nights when the alien city outside my window often seemed paradoxically too empty and too full of people, I found myself reading about the Surrealists and their relationship with cities, travel, escape, and hotel rooms. In Katherine Conley’s book Automatic Woman (1996), I read how the German artist Unica Zürn (the partner of fellow artist Hans Bellmer) was interned into a psychiatric asylum in the 1960s as a result of smashing a windowpane in a hotel room in Berlin. André Breton’s muse ‘Nadja’ was also incarcerated due to her ‘erratic and odd behaviour’ in a Paris hotel, and the British-born artist and writer Leonora Carrington, with whose work I had become fascinated, was arrested and detained in a clinic as a result of stripping naked and confronting staff of the Hotel Ritz in Madrid.
That all three women came undone, psychologically speaking, in hotel rooms is not a surprise. They lived peripatetic, transient lives anyway and, for these women associated with Surrealism, the mirrors, doors, locks, balconies and bathrooms of hotel rooms became active props and surroundings for the process of ‘going to the other side’, much encouraged and exploited by the male artists in their lives. The Surrealists were obsessed with encounters with the unconscious, with dalliances with madness and most often it was the women who were pushed – or chose to jump – all the way into the rabbit hole while their male counterparts looked on. It was through doorways opened by women that male Surrealists felt they could reach a pure state of psychic automatism – in other words, art outside the confines of reason, or moral or aesthetic control – and the hotel room was often the perfect theatre for these experiments.
Zürn deliberately placed herself in anonymous rooms to allow the hallucinations to occur
Zürn in particular was a full-bodied manifestation of the paradoxical other, occupying an entirely liminal space. She would walk a few paces behind Bellmer, not simply a muse but also a living embodiment of the life-sized, pre-pubescent dolls he made. Zürn suffered three breakdowns, each precipitated when she went away from the apartment in Paris she shared with Bellmer, or away from her children from a previous marriage, and installed herself in a hotel.
In her autobiographical writings, Zürn wrote that a hotel room became ‘a huge empty stage, almost dark, [it] appeared, not like the product of a hallucination, but more like a clear picture that forms in the centre of one’s being…’ The trigger, she wrote, was looking through the hotel window and experiencing hallucinations relating to a childhood trauma: her family home was auctioned when she was 15, along with all its contents. It signalled the destruction and loss of her family as she knew it, of her childhood, and a fundamental part of herself.
Zürn was attracted to madness and embraced it, deliberately placing herself in anonymous rooms in order to allow the hallucinations to occur. She traversed borders between reality and unreality, exemplified by images relating to rooms and houses. She wrote:
This house, bathed in an emerald green light, becomes transparent. Through the walls she can see. The inside: she sees the Indian Buddha from the Temple of the Rocks, the big Chinese dragon embroidered in gold and silver thread on a black velvet background, the Arab lamp with golden, red, and green light. But this image of the interior of the house is brief, the walls close up again … The door closes again, and the entire house, even the green fairy light under which the house first appeared, melts away.
A few years later, in 1970, having suffered another cycle of hallucinations followed by a crashing return to reality, she committed suicide by throwing herself from a balcony in Paris.
Ihave a collection of hotel-headed notepaper and I use it to write people notes, instead of sending postcards. The American poet Elizabeth Bishop, an inveterate traveller for the duration of her life and no stranger to hotels, drew sketches on hotel stationery. One such drawing is her room at what was the Murray Hill Hotel in New York, and the space she captures feels claustrophobic, confined. In the story ‘In Prison’ (1938) she writes: ‘The hotel existence I now lead might be compared in many respects to prison life, I believe: there are the corridors, the cellular rooms, the large, unrelated group of people with different purposes in being there that animate every one of them but it still displays great differences.’
The hotel experience boils down to the room: the confinement of the space that is at once personally yours and not yours, cell-like, an entrapment. Jonathan Ellis writes in Art and Memory in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop (2006) that ‘wallpapered rooms were always difficult spaces for Bishop to settle down in because of their link to childhood fears’. Just like Unica Zürn looked out of hotel windows and saw the demolition of her family home, it finally occurred to me that it makes no difference how far you run – to a hotel perched on the edge of the universe perhaps – the room one takes will always be wallpapered with childhood fears and in the bathroom half-light you will always look like a ghost.
I moved back to the seagulls and the shabby hotels, to work on making an uneasy peace with standing still
My sense of dis-ease grew when travelling, so I tried to bring things from home to make me feel grounded. But I quickly realised that I did not own anything other than books that had any personal meaning, and this fact alone made me sad and question the way I had been living my life. I began to feel panic whenever I was around the furniture and fittings of international hotels: the purposefully generic lobby, the vast reception desk. It got so even the dining spaces and stairwells of hotels began to induce anxiety when I walked through them.
A sense of entrapment, claustrophobia and paranoia but, above all, the acute feeling of being lost: where am I? Where the hell am I? The blood and muscle and bone of my body continually whirred in failed attempts to locate myself – perhaps the hippocampus seahorse in my brain was doing somersaults – and, as a result, a permanent, shameful feeling of drowning. I had to stop travelling, I decided; stay at home for a while. I gave up the international job and decided to sit still and write.
The closest I could get to staying at home was to take up a writer residency in a hotel in Margate, Kent, where I intended to shut myself up and finish a piece of work. I thought that remaining in the UK would keep me on safer, dryer ground. No hotel swimming pools, no more loss of self through the cracks of fractured time zones or hallucinatory jet-lagged evenings.
In my damp little room overlooking the grey sea and a bleak promenade, I began to draw a map, a constellation of writers and artists I felt were somehow inheritors of the earlier Surrealist’s endeavours; queens of the night in nameless hotel rooms. From Leonora Carrington to Jean Rhys. From Jean Rhys to Amy Winehouse. From Amy Winehouse to Tracey Emin, Margate’s greatest export, whose childhood home was the Hotel International in Margate, a seafront hotel run by her father. It was a place of no safety for the young Emin as is well documented through her art career.
One of Emin’s pieces, entitled ‘Hotel International’ (1993), is a quilt made of hand-stitched felt words, using fabrics and materials from her life. In an interview with Carl Freedman in 2005, discussing her use of homely spaces, re-making dolls houses, using quilted materials, blankets and tents, she was asked: ‘Do you feel like a little girl, playing with furniture, when you create these homes?’ She answered: ‘Possibly.’ ‘So you are trapped in the past? You are involved in yourself to the degree that you can’t move away from it?’ ‘Maybe I am trying to put home right,’ she replied.
I grew up in a clapped-out seaside town on the south coast of England, not so many miles away from Emin’s Margate. I did everything I could to escape the shingle, the bad weather, the faded, John Betjeman‑esque hotels where I had summer jobs waitressing for sleazy hotel bosses, serving ice cream to ancient old ladies. For many years, I equated this chalky, desolate coastline and the squawking of seagulls with death: the end of the world, the end of time.
I circled the globe as many times as possible, but just as Jean Rhys found herself continually back in the same bedsits – ‘predestined, she had returned to her starting-point in this little Bloomsbury bedroom that was so exactly like the little Bloomsbury bedrooms she had left nearly 10 years before…’ – I find myself living again in a similarly run-down seaside town, a spitting distance from London, a spitting distance from Gatwick airport, walking along a tide-line scattered with cuttlefish bones and dried fish eggs. I now live close to a seafront lined with shabby hotels with names such as the Belle View and the Sea Bright. When I peer into the windows, I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s disparaging list of hotel ‘decorations’: the ‘unattractive wallpaper’ and the ‘Turkey carpets’. In the end, to remain alive, I gave up the fancy travelling job. I gave up pretending that London, or any other city, was my home and moved back to the weather and the seagulls and the shabby hotels, to work on making an uneasy peace with standing still.
When I think about that time of my life now, a spiralling-down that surprised me and which I barely survived, it is entirely connected with the hieroglyphs of hotels. I ask myself Bishop’s famous line: ‘Should we have stayed at home, wherever that may be?’ My answer is that I don’t think so. I don’t regret all the running away but I do understand the risks of travel a little better.
I have a few rules now: don’t go for too long, always come back, make sure to remain tethered by animals, children, houses and husbands, anything that can be clung on to and turned into an anchor. When I recall the swimming pools in those grand hotels, and all the associated symbolism – the unconscious, the enclosed and confining aspects – I imagine myself lying on my back in the water, allowing myself to be carried, floating, and I am no longer afraid of the sensation of being weightless. It is less like drowning, or falling, but simply being taken along.