In his final novel, Island, Aldous Huxley created a vision of utopia where the Pacific island of Pala is an “oasis of happiness and freedom,” free from the trappings of capitalism, consumerism, and technology. Some say that the Island is an example of humanity at its sanest and most admirable. Yet it ends, predictably, in sorrow, “the work of a hundred years destroyed in a single night.” So, what was Huxley’s point in creating then destroying a vision of paradise?

What does happiness mean, how can we achieve it, what will it take to fulfill our quest in life, if we even know what that is? Happiness preoccupies far too many of us for too much of the time.  Madness too, although not so many of us contemplate it to an equal degree.  And yet the two are so often inextricably linked, unresolved conflicts tangling us up in knots.  A new book published by Penguin with the mental health charity, Mind, offers some invaluable insights.

All animals occupy a different niche in space and time.  Bats, as the only mammal to have developed the ability of true flight, are uniquely placed to survive in the shadows of the night-time.  As well as being ecologically indispensable, they are magnificent to watch.  Tuning into their world is a privileged way of gaining access to this world and a poignant reminder of our place in the universal order.

What constitutes a meaningful life, what is the point of existence, how do we fulfil our potential in a single lifetime in such a way that contributes to humankind, to the planet?  These are the questions that provide the subtext to virtually all human activity and thought. Only we no longer have the luxury of time to contemplate the possibilities because we've antagonised the planet to the point of bringing on our own extinction.

“Feminism is about repairing and imagining a new way of changing the world.  It is not a set of demands, it’s about who we are,” in the words of activist and journalist Beatrix Campbell. Such a compelling call to action is surely something that we can all sign up to, isn’t it? The rallying cry for new social constructs and better political representation that is about the people, for the people.  The trouble is, too many of those terms are fluid, undefined and susceptible to manipulation if not misinterpretation – politics, identity, community, feminism.  Is it any wonder that we don’t know who we are or what we stand for, never mind knowing if we’re there yet?

Irreversible species decline, catastrophic climate change, fresh water shortages and global food insecurity – it can be easy to despair when every day brings another slap in the face of a headline. With each new report, hope can disintegrate as surely as the ozone layer. But it doesn’t have to be like this – if we take the time to pause and reflect on the causes of despair, some say there is a chance we can save ourselves.

It’s fairly evident that we’re a selfish bunch — developing technologies that help us live as fast and hard as possible, spending money on products that will prolong pleasure if not life itself (though that’s also a heavily financed desperate pursuit), mining foreign lands for all they’re worth, all with relatively little regard for the long term consequences.  But what of those consequences, and do we care enough to react?

Buoyed on by Morrissey’s pronouncement that Meat is Murder, a love of animals, and a rampantly militant attitude towards anything conformist (i.e.: I was a moody teenager), in 1993 I swore never to eat another living creature again. For ten years I lived by that oath, embracing lentils, tofu and quinoa, riding the hippy wave of independent spirit that every generation mistakes as unique to itself.  Ten years later, I did the terrible thing that my teenage self would have hated me for — I started to eat fish. 

The question of what motivates and inspires writers has enduring appeal for anyone eager to pursue the creative life. It also reveals some fascinating insights from which anyone can benefit. We all have a story to tell, as individuals, organisations, communities, societies, businesses. And just like any story, if it’s interesting enough and told well, people will listen.

Based on the advice of writers from Stephen King to David Foster Wallace, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Zadie Smith and many more, when I cannot write my designated daily quota of 500 words on one subject, I turn to reading.  I scour the net, my bookshelves and every local bookshop, in search of inspiration, thirsty for facts that might ultimately furnish each of my projects with added authenticity.

Women don’t make good researchers.  Feminism needs re-branding.  Education will only give girls a misplaced sense of power.  These are just some of the judgements pedalled in recent debates about the gender gap.  The common denominator seems to be the idea that women are neither capable nor worthy of changing the social landscape which, according to those harbouring such archaic views, they should simply accept as their lot.  Thankfully, the many who disagree have something far more interesting to say.

If you follow Socrates' line of thought, the unexamined life is not worth living.  But what if, when you examine it, it’s worth even less?  That is John Gray’s conclusion; in fact it’s the beginning, middle and end of his entirely nihilistic polemic, Straw Dogs, in which he catalogues a history of rapacious human activity, taking down science, philosophy and everything in between.

Whether you’re a journalist, a fiction writer, a biographer, a marketer or a corporate PR pro, the art of telling a good story will invariably lie at the heart of what you do.  Attracting the attention of your audience and then holding them captive is an invaluable skill.  Stories that inspire, inform, entertain and move are undoubtedly the best way to engage with people and make an impression.