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AofA People: Pete Lawrence – Founder, Campfire Convention


13 Minute Read

Pete Lawrence, 61, created the concept for The Big Chill in the 90s, and went on to found Campfire Convention as an innovative social network, which also sparks membership-based events. They’re very much about making space for important conversations about values and the way people want to live, which will make the way for societal change. Their first outdoor Convention was in Hereford in 2016 and Brian Eno was one of the key speakers. They are launching a crowdfund Fire in the Belly on May 1st.

What do you do?

I am founder and firestarter for Campfire Convention. We are building a member-led online social network, free of advertising and algorithms, already putting on regular face-to-face events. We believe that we have the potential to evolve the way we do social networking as well as stepping up and actively facilitating change at the local level.

We’re busy getting our first crowdfund together which we’re calling Fire In the Belly and we’re launching it on May 1st. It’s important for us to enable the building of an alternative community-based social network that can work for the good of all. The funds will start to pay some of our wonderful volunteers such as our lead developer Tim who is upgrading our software and also working on some very exciting features.

A mentorship circle has formed around the crowdfund, almost by accident – members have stepped up and offered workshops or sessions around their skills and passions, and will share their wisdom for the benefit of all. I regard the nurturing of the concept and functions of elders as increasingly important in the world and hopefully, Campfire can play its part.

Much needs to change. In the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s now clear that the ‘surveillance capitalism’ model of social media is unsustainable, built as it is on monetising data. The full implications of us choosing a digital advertising platform as our presumed safe space in which to share all our most intimate thoughts, hopes, fears and passions are only now being realised. It creates a forum in which the owners of a gigantic operation rule the social media world, arguably the wider world too, for their own ends and for shareholder profit.

My vision for Campfire is to provide an alternative forum which actually does what it says on the ‘social network’ tin: in other words, to help to build and strengthen communities. Campfire works for its members and seeds new ideas and social change for the benefit of all. As part of our next phase, we’re looking to reward our members through a Karma Scheme, which simply measures input and remunerates accordingly. However, we need your help to ensure this dream of an ethical social network – that gives back, and builds real-world belonging – can become a sustainable reality.

The crowdfund will tell us whether we are on the right track. So if you’re looking for alternatives to the tech giants, please support us. fundrazr.com/campfireconvention (from May 1)

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

It’s pretty good in many respects. At 61, I feel unencumbered, liberated from much of the niggling commitments I had at earlier ages and more flexible in terms of how, when and where I work. I am privileged in that respect and I’m not taking anything for granted. I am thankful for my physical health and mental faculties are intact. Having already lived a full life with many memorable experiences, I honour every extra day that I am alive as a gift and a blessing. I don’t feel much different to how I felt when I was 30 in many respects. I’m still a teenager at heart!

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Hopefully, a modicum of wisdom from assorted life experiences, a host of stories and adventures, the responsibilities associated with two children, a house of my own, a motorhome, not to mention some unwelcome RSI and much greyer hair!

And what about sex?

What about it? Hard to know what to say. Sex hasn’t lost its appeal in any way. Quite the opposite, I very much enjoy the physical expression of love and connection, the ecstasy of explosive chemistry.

I’m still a subscriber to the view that an open-minded approach to sexual experiences can be enthralling, enlightening and totally inspirational. In my younger years, I was often chasing the next sexual adventure and the thrill. Today, I might be less likely to have spontaneous sex on a Greyhound bus with a stranger, but my attitude is more about going into an encounter with that same sense of adventure but keeping my eyes and other senses as wide open as possible. Respect for the other person or people in a sexual experience is paramount. The imagination is the supreme gift.

And relationships?

Relationships make the world go round and often richly repay time investment. Several people have commented on the tribute that I have just written on Campfire for my good friend who died, saying that it’s refreshing and even unusual for a man to write in that way about another man. To me, it’s just second nature to pour my heart out and to be open about the impact and effect of a friendship or good relationship, whatever the gender. I vividly remember a Campfire Conversation in Winchcombe based around the word ‘relationship’ which was one of the best sessions we have done yet. People were in tears – one because of the power and memories of a positive friendship, the other because a chance sexual encounter had led to an HIV infection. This was human relationships, raw and exposed. It was hugely cathartic for many.

How free do you feel?

I don’t feel burdened at the moment. Most importantly I am lucky to be generally free of illness and will be extremely grateful for that while it lasts. I am fortunate to have a house without a mortgage and I don’t feel bogged down by grief, guilt, emotion or other human characteristics that can prevent freedom. Having a year living in my motorhome was a great eye-opener in terms of unloading possessions and learning to live out of a suitcase. It showed me that if you don’t have an address, you’re outside the system and hard to track. But that also has a downside in that it’s much harder to insure a vehicle, for instance. Surveillance capitalism is everywhere.

I became much more conscious of my footprint on this planet because I lived with limitations on water, electrics, lights, fuel and other ‘luxuries’ that we often take for granted. I learned a more frugal approach, which has shaped other things, from the choice of food I eat, the clothes, goods I purchase and generally limiting my consumption wherever possible.

Whether ‘freedom’ is totally desirable is another talking point. Some might argue that freedom often equates to the freedom to exploit others, for example. A rallying call from some right-wing politicians for ‘a bonfire of regulation’ tells its own story. Often a degree of regulation and some agreed values and principles, rules, laws can be liberating or reassuring for sections of society. It comes down to whose interests the ‘freedoms’ work for. Raoul Martinez’s excellent book ‘Creating Freedom’ expands on this.

What are you proud of?

I’m proud of everyone who played their part in the rollercoaster journey that was The Big Chill, which was a highlight of my life and showed me the power of community and how life-changing bringing people together can be. And it was great fun and I have met so many people through it that I still stay in touch with. We’re aiming to have a little reunion this summer, which I’m hoping to confirm very soon.

Also, bucking the 80s trend of overblown studio recordings by making an album on a £1 recording budget which sold close to a million copies gave me a certain sense of satisfaction and was my first business venture after making the leap into the unknown world of being self-employed.

I’m proud of my kids too. And my friends.

What keeps you inspired?

People – their diversity, their unique genius, foibles, quirks, ideas, their creativity…

Music – the universal language.

Art – creativity in all its forms.

Political change-makers – those working for a better world.

When are you happiest?

When I’m creating. It’s a great outlet. When I’m in a yoga class and not distracted by more worldly irritants, when I’m in stimulating company, with friends or with my children, when I’m immersed in a sunset or sunrise, swimming in the clean waters of the Aegean or listening to a great musical work and otherwise involved in someone else’s creative spark or humour.

And where does your creativity go?

Being creative in all sorts of ways – musically, sexually, in preparing food, in conceptualising ideas while I’m walking, showering or sitting on the beach. For me, nothing beats the reward of seeing other peoples’ ideas spark into life. If Campfire can grow into a platform that can hold space for this, it will be serving its purpose. Much of my creative juices are expended on my laptop, whether in writing, photo manipulation, making short films, music or podcasts. I love my computer (in preference to my mobile) but would love to be doing more with my hands other than tapping keys!

What’s your philosophy of living?

To live every day mindfully, take notice of what is around me, think not of outcomes but of the moment, listen to others, learn, be humble, be grateful, celebrate this life in all its myriad forms, strive to serve the greater good. Stand resolute in the face of challenges, setbacks and negative influences. Aspire to a calm state of mind, whether through meditation and yoga (both should be mandatory for politicians!) or through other regular practice. Reach out, share and be as inclusive as possible. Do something helpful for somebody else whenever possible. Work towards a society based around the motivation inspired by the question ‘what can we build together?’ rather than ‘what’s in it for me?’ Aspire to spread hope and positivity.

I love Swami Satanyanda’s ‘Sankapla’, which might be a good place to start in terms of how to approach life.

I thank my friend Kimm sent it to me today.

I am an invisible child of a thousand faces of love,

That floats over the swirling sea of life,

Surrounded by the meadows of the winged shepherds,

Where divine love and beauty,

The stillness of midnight summer’s warmth pervades.

Life often cuts at my body and mind

And though blood may be seen passing,

And a cry might be heard,

Do not be deceived that sorrow could dwell within my being

Or suffering within my soul.

There will never be a storm

That can wash the path from my feet,

The direction from my heart,

The light from my eyes,

Or the purpose from this life.

I know that I am untouchable to the forces

As long as I have a direction, an aim, a goal:

To serve, to love, and to give.

Strength lies in the magnification of the secret qualities

Of my own personality, my own character

And though I am only a messenger,

I am me.

Let me decorate many hearts

And paint a thousand faces with colours of inspiration

And soft, silent sounds of value.

Let me be like a child,

Run barefoot through the forest

Of laughing and crying people,

Giving flowers of imagination and wonder,

That God gives free.

Shall I fall on bended knees,

And wait for someone to bless me

With happiness and a life of golden dreams?

No, I shall run into the desert of life with my arms open,

Sometimes falling, sometimes stumbling,

But always picking myself up,

A thousand times if necessary,

Sometimes happy.

Often life will burn me,

Often life will caress me tenderly

And many of my days will be haunted

With complications and obstacles,

And there will be moments so beautiful

That my soul will weep in ecstasy.

I shall be a witness,

But never shall I run

Or turn from life, from me.

Never shall I forsake myself

Or the timeless lessons I have taught myself,

Nor shall I let the value

Of divine inspiration and being be lost.

My rainbow-covered bubble will carry me

Further than beyond the horizon’s settings,

Forever to serve, to love, and to live.

And dying?

That’s a very pertinent question as someone I would consider my best friend died last week. I think he had a good death surrounded by friends and loved ones in his last few days, though the traumas around his unexpected stroke a week before were not good in any sense. But somehow death brings others together, not only in grief but in celebration of that person’s life and we have to keep that at the forefront. It’s been a tough start to the year as I’ve lost six friends in quick succession and found myself thinking about death almost every day. But many positive things have come out of that, not least attending my first Death Café in Frome and finding that I had the space and support to properly grieve for my mother who died when I was 15. At the time I wasn’t allowed to. There was something extraordinarily powerful about crying with others, grieving together for the whole world, for sadness, for the miracle of life and the cycle of life and death. It was very moving for all of us.

Dare I hope that I will not live my final years in pain, depression or other suffering?

Are you still dreaming?

More than ever. Collective dreaming. Imagining a different world. What are we dreaming of for Campfire? For starters, an end of quite a lot that’s prevalent at the moment – outmoded politics, right-wing ideology, and surveillance capitalism. An end to a world increasingly fuelled by mistrust. What do we want? Obviously, a thriving community would be the holy grail and much could spark from that. A vibrant website and exciting events are our first priority, but our vision can extend a lot wider. We can play our part in social change, in helping create a fairer society and in empowering our own membership, both individually and collectively by providing an environment where ideas can lead to inspiration. Debate can lead to community determination, co-creativity can lead to collaboration and realisation, which in turn can lead to recognition, confidence and hopefully financial rewards too. We must hold on to hope above all, when hope dies the spirit is extinguished. None of these desires or actions are a universal panacea but the important thing is to not lose sight of the fact that each one of us can make a real difference, though every conversation and interaction that we have.

My personal dreams overlap with what I wish for in my work life. The expression ‘work-life balance’ is meaningless – but I also dream of a more harmonious, less self-centred society that prefers building bridges to walls.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

I’m not really the one to decide that! However, outrageousness becomes more subtle with age and thoughts and ideas can be just as outrageous as actions at times. I have just been sitting in a tea hut in East Wittering writing this Q&A. To the outside world, I probably looked pretty dull and boring but who could have imagined what was in my head! I’m refusing to spill all the ‘clickbait’ beans here.

You can find the Campfire Convention crowdfunding campaign here:

https://fundrazr.com/campfireconvention

From the Big Chill to Community Action


1 Minute Read

The staging of our second Campfire Convention event in London is timely. The speed of change around us is accelerating. It’s time to take stock. It’s also the week that I’m celebrating my 60th birthday. I can’t believe how the years have flown by, but I still have the burning passion and sense of mission I discovered in my 30s.

Our idea behind the Convention is to challenge and push for new approaches. Change at all levels, from personal to community, from political to global.

The ethos, values and principles of Campfire are based around cultivating hope and aspiring to be a hub for good. It has to come down to giving people a sense of engagement and empowerment – both individually for each of our members and collectively for our community – and a belief that we can make a difference and that the world can be a better place.

The world’s been in trouble lately and we’ve lost our way in many senses. There is an urgent need to come together to try and reimagine how we might shape our world. Politics is too important to be left to political parties. Political enlightenment begins at home and I’ve come to believe that a far more prominent female energy is needed in the world and Campfire is doing its bit to help bring that about.

I’ve been doing even more dreaming than usual. Being out and about in a motorhome without a UK base since January I’ve learnt to live without luxuries and possessions. It’s not only been a grounding experience but one that has led to a re-evaluation of what is important after talking to many people around the UK at our various Campfire Conversation events and I’m getting a sense that ‘social glue’ or belonging comes pretty high up that list for so many.

Our patron, Brian Eno, admitted that a revolution has unfolded, but it didn’t come from the people most of us expected. Now that it has happened and the course of history has been changed, the rules have been broken, we have a level playing field which means that social and political concepts considered off-piste as recently as two years ago can become acceptable, desirable even. This has both inspirational and sinister potential. We need to come up with the inspirational ideas and get them out there. This is our time.

The end of neoliberalism, even capitalism, is in the air and along with those changes, a shift in the way we live together, work together, interact and do business. Post capitalism needs new models and uniquely we are in a position to seize the narrative, to come up with the concepts. Most good ideas are arguably coming from outside the main political parties, though Jeremy Corbyn has recently shown a fresh level of imagination in his speeches around new economic models.

There is now a focus on sustainable communities as well as sustainable ecology, co-housing and energy consumption, online platforms that work for the good of all. Our Campfire Kudos scheme can work on input / output metrics, rewarding engagement and encouraging a culture of volunteering to get things off the ground. This works hand-in-hand with a growing realisation that by helping each other we help ourselves. No longer is ‘what can I get from this?’ the primary objective. A move from ‘extrinsic’ values – those based around fame, power, wealth and competition, is being superseded by a realisation that ‘intrinsic’ values – universal rights and equality, the natural world and independent thinking – are more important in many ways. In short, the fundamental shift that still needs to happen is not putting ourselves first. A move from ‘I’m alright Jack’ to ‘How does this effect the planet and all those on it?’.

Anomie and alienation have predominated, but now it’s time to move towards community engagement and social cohesion is likely to be the result. Campfire can play its part galvanising at local level via what we’re calling our new ‘Beacons’ initiative.

Campfire is a new community, inspired by my previous project, the now-defunct Big Chill festival, which in its heyday opened my eyes to the power of connections and how they could not only create a feel good factor but also a movement for change. With Campfire the possibilities are ever more exciting. The Big Chill was all about a community built around the idea of partying but it became increasingly about hedonism and commercialism. Campfire is more grounded in discussion and collective co-operation, with essential change at the widest holistic level very much our aim now that it is within our orbit.

Campfire can be many things – an alternative journalistic voice, a means to portfolio our key interests and enthusiasms, a platform for connection and collaboration, an ad-free forum for chat and the shaping of new agendas. Together we can craft something of great value, a resource built on collective wisdom and templates of experience. Members might start a new Project on the future of work and what it looks like, on sustainability, on new approaches to learning, on the politics of food production. Or start a Beacon. Or join one and go to our events in Malvern Hills or Edinburgh.

Our political proposal, Trailblazer politics, has values at its heart. “Values are the bedrock of effective politics” suggests writer George Monbiot. Social networking need not be about marketing spend to boost pages, algorithmic targeted ads, posting what you had for breakfast or swinging a general election. It can have a heart and a soul, a purpose and a real-life element. The Campfire circle is a great leveller.

So why am I doing this? Connecting people and watching the sparks – the buzz of the flow of ideas, the collaborations, not to mention the happy collisions – the friendships, relationships and even the marriages (I know of at least 30 from The Big Chill community).

And of course, seeing others blossom and flourish.

It’s not hard to sense that a change is already occurring at a personal level – health, exercise, nourishment, food choices, mobile and flexible working, jettisoning the stuff that makes us feel stressed and disconnected, less credit and fewer mortgages, freer living, co-ops, joining local community initiatives, exchanging life experience and knowledge. That sense of community belonging can give us an anchor but it can also energise, heal, inform and educate.

I hope to inspire as I’ve been inspired. To challenge my own comfort zone, step up and maybe encourage others to do the same.

Our choice of language shaped by our visions is important – we can build the stories, everyone loves stories. Has anyone noticed the way that words such as ‘love’ and ‘empathy’ have recently appeared in political rhetoric more often lately? Let’s legitimise ‘love’ and ‘empathy’ as political forces in themselves. Let’s turn things upside down.

Our new kind of politics is a holistic politics, sharing from a sense of self, a sense of connection to our chosen communities and a vision for a better world where everyone can have a say and we can all make a difference.

Campfire can connect globally, whilst joining the dots and respecting the differences, welcoming diversity and expanding horizons through initiatives online and offline.

I’ve often started from a utopian viewpoint. On my travels in Greece I reflected on the word utopia, originating as it does from the Greek Ou (not) and Topos (place). It was first used in 1516 by Sir Thomas More in his book ‘Utopia’. “Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich – for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?”

Politics dies without imagination, people die without nourishment, hope dies without community. More than ever, we need to make a connection between dreams and pragmatism, we need to talk and listen, we need to write and express, to formulate ideas grounded in local communities, to convene in unconventional ways.

That’s how we will make a difference. That’s how we already are making a big difference. Sparks are igniting, beacons are being lit.

We have to believe in ourselves as a force for change. We have to believe in a movement that has the potential to reach out beyond party lines, a message that appeals to as many as possible. I’d like to think that Campfire is here for good.

Campfire Convention 002.UK takes place all day Saturday November 4th at Union Chapel, London N1. https://campfireconvention.uk/events/campfire-convention-002uk-london

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