by Harriet May
We’re young and urban and busy, so not much about our lives is about ritual, and when it is, it’s the ritual of morning coffee from Pret or of cramming ourselves into a Victoria line train before someone with greater mass pushes us back out (“Pull in your bags and jackets from the closing doors!” the train drivers bellow across the PA and then a beat later, predictably dismayed, “Somebody didn’t listen!”). We were raised with various half-hearted religions, or none at all, and whatever spirituality our parents hoped we’d gain has now been replaced with YouTube videos. “I think running is your spirituality,” Sam tells me, when I declare I’m not at all spiritual. “It occupies a lot of your mind and your time.” Does this mind-space and time-taken equate to spirituality, or distract from it? “It’s spiritual,” Sam assures me, “the way you use running to focus, to connect with yourself.” I’m not certain. All I know is I’m glad I have no obligation at all to pretend I believe in anything beyond stardust and electricity and sure even dark matter.
We meet Amy at a workers caff for eggs and toast before making our way over to Conway Hall, a beautiful art deco building that houses the oldest freethought organisation in the world. On the surface it’s church-like, but rather than bible verses the walls remind its congregation TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE. It’s the kind of place where I can forget I’m hungover, rather than be made more aware of it. We are here for Sunday Sermon, another reminder of what we owe to those who normalised weekly meetings around the world to share ideas which is not, by itself, a terrible idea. The theme is greed and the first order of the day is to belt out the hymn, ABBA’s ‘Money Money Money’, before Jack Monroe, fresh from legal victory, takes the stage. I’m a little greedy, for success, for Karen Millen dresses, certainly for sourdough bread. I’m also a marketer whose work is based somewhat on manipulating the greed of others. I need this.
“I apologise for the general state of me,” she says, smirking beneath a flash of orange hair. Even suffering from a cold and not, like me, the consequences of the previous night, Jack is vibrant and rebellious and it’s easy to see how she has made a career out of appealing to the public, pushing back against modern pressures to be anything other than herself. The pressures to be aspirational, as she says. We can be successful without taking up all the space, all the resources, we can want things without damaging ourselves and our communities and each other. And this is the difference, as she tells it: following on from the success of her first book, A Girl Called Jack, her publisher had plans to grow Jack from “the face of modern poverty” into an aspirational success story, with a high-gloss, hardback book retailing for £26.99, more than double the £10 maximum selling price she had demanded for her first book. “The only way you can take every one of my readers on this journey with me,” she recalls saying, “is to give every one of them a book deal. Can you do that?” Yet at the time, Jack was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, in a flat with five other people, a stark contrast to the space the publisher had arranged in which to take the highly stylised photography for the book. And in the end it didn’t become Jack’s book, it was something else entirely, not made for Jack’s audience but in spite of them: “and it flopped.”
Jack doesn’t manipulate greed but questions it. I resolve to question my greed, turn it into creativity and curiosity–focus is called for, and connection, and suddenly spirituality doesn’t seem so outlandish– and maybe then it’s even ok to want more.