Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A Few Kind Words have moved ...

. . . to new and more salubrious quarters. You'll find new posts plus all the old ones with just one click - HERE!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Witness

When I came back to Scotland in 1990 after living in London for 20 years it seemed like a different country to the one I had left. The spirit of John Knox had finally been banished from the streets of Edinburgh. You could eat well (well, a lot better), get a drink on a Sunday, have a cup of coffee outside on the pavement on a sunny day. There were good clubs and gigs, plays and shows. The capital seemed to have acquired a cultural life outside of August and optimism was the order of the day.
Writing was undergoing a tremendous renaissance with the contemporary Scottish novel being hailed far and wide. The music scene was transformed too. In my own particular area of interest, traditional music, the change was nothing less than radical. I had left to the strains of Jimmy Shand and his ilk, the old guys, with their slick, strict tempo country dance band sound. Now the young guys (and girls) had thrillingly claimed it for themselves, doing dangerous things with their fingering and bowing and breathing, nonchalantly and expertly playing fast and loose with melody and tempo, making music worth listening, as well as dancing, to.
And then, of course, there was devolution. Donald Dewar was a much admired figure across the political spectrum, although his flagship legislation for the new Scottish parliament was causing some consternation outside the Central Belt.
Having been brought up among landowners I had never given a moment’s thought to the fact that, thanks to the Napoleonic code and other European inheritance laws, Scotland is the last place in Europe where it's still possible to buy a very large piece of wilderness, sit in the middle of it, and effectively keep out the rest of the world. But now the issue of landownership was squarely on the political agenda - not least because it was one area where the new parliament, with its limited powers, could make a significant change - and I found the whole issue fascinating.
Put simply, on the one hand, very large tracts of the Scottish countryside were in the possession of a very small number of private landowners; on the other hand those landowners with their deep pockets managed and maintained this largely unproductive wilderness as an amenity for everyone else. It was a polarising debate, and at the time I returned there were those on both sides who believed it heralded the revolution.
In the end the Land Reform Scotland Act did little more than enshrine the ages-old Scottish precept that as long as you were sensible and respectful you could go where you wanted; though it did raise people's awareness of the fact that in Scotland, ownership in law was philosophically underpinned by the notion of stewardship or custodianship, and it paved the way for some high-profile community buyouts, notably on the islands of Gigha and Eigg, and on the Assynt peninsula.
It also, however, gave me the background for the novel I wanted to write; my response in part to the whole experience of being back in Scotland again, in part to the Balkans conflict and the horrors of Sarajevo and Srebrenica (I think of Homs and Idlib today and despair). It enabled me to concoct an independent Scotland of the near future in which land had been nationalised and in which, after years of mismanagement, the disgruntled Highlanders had risen up, alongside their dispossessed former lairds, against the government - a civil war arising out of a kind of reverse Highland clearances.
The book was published in 2007. It did reasonably well, was shortlisted for several prizes, and despite being pitched by the publishers at the top end of the young adult market, was read by just as many adults as teenagers. At the time of writing it I never imagined that five years later the SNP would be in charge, much less that independence would be heading the agenda. Nor did I imagine that my publishers would have ditched me and that I would be free to republish the book myself for use on a then only-dimly-imagined electronic reading device.
    But that is what has come to pass and now The Witness is available on Kindle at a very modest £1.95. If you haven't already read it, it will give you an edge-of-the-seat glimpse into a possible, though I sincerely hope not probable, future Scotland. If you have already read and enjoyed it, you can help me bring it to the attention of other readers by adding it to your Kindle library for less than the price of a pair of Ratner's earrings. Well worth it I'd say ... but then I would, wouldn't I. I hope you'll agree. You can find out by clicking here!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Chinese fairies

My mother is in reminiscent mode. She’s got to the age, nearly 84 as she reminds me constantly, where that old cliché about having nothing left but the memories is starting to manifest itself.
In her day she was wildly active, forever starting this, chairing that, raising money for the other. Now she’s largely sedentary. The once constant flow of correspondence, in her large expressive hand, with much underlining and postscripts that curled round the corners and along the edges of the pages, has dried up. She doesn’t like using the telephone and is no longer interested in being sociable. It’s as if she has quietly and gently closed the door on the world – which is not to say she’s planning to leave it. She’s quite happy, she says, and thoroughly enjoying herself ‘being lazy’; as well she might now that she’s ensconced in her own fully serviced flat in the very nice care home five minutes walk from my house.
She spends her day reading voraciously, watching television and, when she has a visitor – which most days is me, reminiscing. She returns frequently to the Clyde blitz and the bomb that brought down her bedroom ceiling on the night that she was providentially sleeping in another part of the house with her mother. The bomb, jettisoned by a plane returning after the main raid on Greenock, the other side of the river, fell in the garden at the east end of the house. But the blast, in the peculiar way of such things, travelled round the narrow space between the rear of the house and the grassy bank behind it, and demolished the west wing, leaving the east wing unscathed.
It must have made the war personal for her in a way that nothing else could have done. She’s never said ‘I beat the Germans’, but I can’t help feeling that that’s there in the undertow of the story. It’s definitely a source of pride that she survived. Often she tells the story the same way, but last time she added an intriguing detail. ‘It didn’t break any of my possessions,’ she said, ‘except some Chinese fairies.’
Chinese fairies? I was in a rush and didn’t follow it up at the time, but I will. In the 1930s her father served in China, commanding a flotilla of Royal Naval gunboats charged with keeping the West River free of pirates. She travelled out there with her mother, aged seven or eight. That journey must have been another hugely formative experience, and although I already know some of the stories, a little digging will undoubtedly throw up more.
But the story that’s really caught my fancy recently is the one about their summer holidays in Scotland with her maternal grandparents, who used to take a shooting lodge near Callander, in the Trossachs. My mother and her parents were then in naval quarters in the south of England. Her grandfather, a City grandee, lived in Buckinghamshire. To ship the whole family, plus domestic entourage, north, he simply hired a private railway carriage. They embarked at Taplow station and sometime the following day disembarked at Callander, having presumably been towed up to London, unhitched at some terminus, then re-hitched to another train heading north – all without the inconvenience of once having to step down from their carriage. My mother shared a sleeping compartment with the cook and a chambermaid, and loved it.
When I’m talking to groups about stories, I invite them to imagine for a moment that they are books, in which each successive page and chapter contains the stories of the incidents and experiences, the encounters and relationships, that make up their lives. I then ask them to picture a giant coming along, wrenching the book from their hands, and rubbing out those stories, starting at the first and working through to the last page, when the book is empty. What then are they left with? I ask.
As I watch my mother growing older I realise more and more how our identity is nothing but the stories we tell ourselves. Without them we are really no longer human.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Anecdotally speaking

There’s a small agency in Melbourne, Australia called Anecdote. They use stories and storytelling to help businesses change and adapt, develop their strategies and undertake other manoeuvres that call for some plumbing of the corporate psyche.
I met one of the Anecdote team in Edinburgh just before Christmas. Kevin Bishop is a former RBS executive who went to live on the other side of the world so that he could follow his new-found vocation as a business storyteller. An energetic and engaging chap in a smart suit, he had none of that whiff of the smoke-filled tepee that one sometimes associates with storytellers. Quite the opposite, everything about him suggested that Anecdote does serious work with some big global players, thank you very much.
We talked about what stories mean to people in business, and I was pleased to find that we shared a distaste for the recent rash of business ‘fables’ like Squirrel Inc and Who Moved My Cheese, which seem lumbering and contrived and largely devoid of the most basic ingredient of storytelling – the ability to create in the reader an emotional connection with the characters. Frankly, I don’t care enough about what happens to the wretched squirrels or mice to want to read beyond chapter one. These stories have been created in service of a message and, as such, are little more than propaganda. They have all the imaginative flair and pathos of a Pyongyang news bulletin.
Anecdote’s skill is in using real stories, often gathered from the dustiest, most neglected corners of businesses: priceless nuggets of organisational knowledge held in the head of one old security man who is about to retire, when they will be lost forever; a simple story of human behaviour recounted by a lowly office worker that changes management attitudes; personal stories that help colleagues understand one another better and bring teams together, and so on. These are stories – I know from my own work with clients and the work we do through Dark Angels – that have the power to change things because they have true human resonance.
Real stories like these are things to be shared, and the more they are shared the more powerful they become. Anecdote publish an e-newsletter in which they generously share much of what they come across in the course of their business. There’s a fascinating item in the current issue about a study by a team of neuroscientists at Princeton University who have discovered that when you put someone through an fMRI scanner as they are telling a personal story, then play back the story to a series of subjects as they in turn go through the scanner, the same bits of the brain light up – in other words, the storyteller’s and listeners’ brains fall into sync. Further, while some listeners brain patterns show a short lag as they catch up with the story, others’ actually precede those of the teller because they are predicting where the story will go. And finally, those listeners who do most predicting also score highest in the subsequent comprehension test.
Science, it seems, is starting to demonstrate what we know intuitively – that stories allow us not only to connect powerfully and deeply with one another, but also to absorb information very efficiently. If this helps businesses to overcome their fear of something they tend to see as alarming and unmeasurable, and move away from a slavish devotion to so-called objectivity, then three cheers for science.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Constant craving

I was talking to my eldest daughter about last week's post and my South American travels. The conversation moved on to the 60s and 70s in general, and the music in particular.
Sophie is 31 and the mother of my first and so far only grandchild. She's done her fair share of travelling, mainly in India and Southeast Asia, so she knows the score. She lives in the depths of rural Wales with her homeopath husband, and their musical tastes are fairly eclectic. Mainstream she is not.
Even so, in her eyes I think my journey seemed somehow different, perhaps almost mythical, because of the era in which I made it.
"I know so many people of my generation who have a real nostalgia for that time, for the 60s and 70s," she said, "although of course it can't be nostalgia can it, because we weren't actually there."
Strictly speaking, no. But I know what she means. We've all experienced a longing for something past, a perceived age of innocence, a Camelot, a temps perdu - whether or not we've actually experienced it.
But did we really have it easier in those days? I honestly don't know. It was easier to get jobs. The music was new and inventive and thrilling. The clothes – well they were simply ridiculous. You could still go to places where not many others had been before. There was a general sense of optimism. But the freedom...
Personally, much as I revelled in it, I also found it confusing, perhaps even rather frightening. How was one to know what to do with one's life when the only two certainties were that one was not going to do what one's parents had done, and that it was now possible to do practically anything else that took one's fancy?
My Latin American journey was a profoundly formative experience, but it was also profoundly unsettling and six months after returning I had a nervous breakdown. There were other contributing factors, difficult family circumstances chief among them, but I think more than anything else I was overwhelmed by possibility.
This was not a problem faced by my mother, now 83, whose house this weekend I'm clearing with my brother and sister; or others of her generation for that matter. Slated for Oxford in the late 40s, she had to give way to the older women returning from the war and settled for teacher's training instead, followed shortly by marriage. I was born four months after her 21st birthday.
At the same age as I was setting off for South America, she was settling down in Edinburgh with her recently qualified and impoverished advocate husband, a two year-old child, the tail end of post-war rationing still in place, and that grim decade, the 1950s, ahead of her.
It's not an era for which I harbour any nostalgia, actual or imagined. And yet, as I open yet another box of papers or books, and find a diary entry here, a newspaper cutting there, my curiosity is kindled. I want to know what it was like. I want to flesh out the stories of which these snippets offer such tantalising glimpses.
That's really what forges our connection with the past, I realise. Our constant and endless craving for stories. They’re part of the glue that hold families together and give us a sense of continuity. Without them we become isolated, cast adrift.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Halfway to heaven

Watching the YouTube film of my Latin American trip opened the floodgates again. There are still so many moments that remain clearly imprinted on my memory, almost forty years later: sailing to the Galapagos Islands on a cargo steamer, driving down out of the Andes into Amazonia in the rainy season, trying to change money in a Santiago back street a few months before the fall of the Allende government, being arrested in La Paz, hitching a lift with an opera-singing Peruvian madman, being handed a loaded revolver in a car in Guatemala and so on.
Much of our itinerary (though not all of what happened on it) is now routine for a gap year traveller, but it certainly wasn’t then, in 1973. We felt like the first European tourists ever to have set foot in some of the places where we ended up. The means of transport, rugged three-ton ex-army trucks, had a lot to do with it and never more so than when we crossed over from Chile into Bolivia. There are a couple of minutes on the film of what followed, but that really doesn’t begin to do justice to the experience.
The border was at a breathless 11,000 feet above sea-level, somewhere inland from Antofagasta, a town where it never rains, at the northern end of the Chilean Atacama desert. The Chilean side of the border crossing was manned but not the Bolivian side. We had to find our way to the town of Uyuni, we were told, where we would get our passports stamped. This proved a lot less easy than it sounded.
At the border the metalled surface stopped abruptly. Beyond, a railway line and a tracery of vague dirt tracks disappeared into the distance, but there was nothing in the arid, mountainous landscape remotely resembling a road. The only map we’d managed to get hold of was Russian, I don’t know why. Uyuni was marked on it, but it was over 100 miles distant, there was what looked like a vast lake in the way, and there were no discernible features either on the map or in the landscape by which we could navigate.
It took us two days to get there – two days of driving sometimes in circles, sometimes through dusty baked-mud villages that from a distance resembled clumps of large boulders, sometimes through swamps of mud or sand, but mostly through the absolute emptiness of the altiplano, the high-altitude plateau of the central Andes.
On the second day we had what still rates as one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. The lake marked on the map turned out to be the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Half the size of Yorkshire, it's a vast expanse of milky white water, a few inches deep, lying on a thick crust of salt at 12,000 feet above sea-level.
We had picked up a local guide and had been skirting the salar for some time when, to our astonishment, he directed us out onto a short, rough causeway. We watched, hearts in mouths, as the lead truck bumped along the causeway and then down into the water. The crust did not give way. The truck rolled forward, picked up speed and we followed. Soon we were bowling along at a steady 20 miles an hour on a surface as smooth as a billiards table, the lead truck kicking up a fine salt spray that coated us from head to foot.
It took three-and-a-half hours to cross the salar, a distance of 70 miles. In the thin air the sun burned down and the sky was brilliantly blue. Around us the salt was blindingly white. After a while the hills behind us dwindled to nothing. Then the horizon started to melt as a thin haze of cloud settled and met the water, and we found ourselves gliding through a surreal, uniformly milky world in which it was impossible to determine where land ended and sky began. In the middle of this, distant shapes came to life and floated upwards. It was a huge flock of scarlet flamingos. Later, a semi-circle of volcanoes began to materialise out of the haze.
Today, trips to the Salar de Uyuni are on every off-piste travel company’s itinerary. Recent photographs show squadrons of landrovers parked at one of the weird volcanic islands that rise out of the salt. I don’t doubt that these travellers marvel at the place just as we did, but I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them, and sorrier still for the desecrated salar.
When we stumbled across it we had no idea of its existence. It seemed to us like a pristine wilderness. In 70 miles we saw nothing but a solitary man on a bicycle. We had no idea that when the causeway ended, the lead truck wouldn’t simply vanish through the crust, no idea how long it would take us to cross; and certainly no idea that we would spend the best part of three hours in this extraordinary saline limbo, literally suspended between heaven and earth. It was almost as if, for a short while, we’d left the planet.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mind the gaps

Last Saturday I took part in the final event of the 26 Treasures Scotland project, chairing a panel discussion at the Winter Words book festival in the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. February 4 is a date which, since university days, I have thought of as the absolute nadir of the year. True to form, it was a filthy afternoon, sleety and freezing. We were also up against the Calcutta Cup kick-off at Murrayfield, half-an-hour after we started. But still we got an audience of about 40 people in the main auditorium.
The panelists were historical novelist Sara Sheridan, who has been the driving force behind the project, Linda Cracknell, writer of short stories and radio plays, and Alison Weir, expert on the Tudors and one of the UK’s most successful writers of historical biographies and novels. Sara, Linda and I had all contributed to the project. Alison had not, but she was in Pitlochry anyway doing her own event and the organisers thought her presence would add something to ours. It did.
The three of us talked about the objects we had been allocated and then read our respective 62 words on Queen Mary’s harp, the Coigrich – a talismanic gold casing for the handle of a bishop’s crosier, and the Gown of Repentance. We had also asked Alison to choose an object and she had obligingly come up with 62 words of her own on a large lump of Lewisian Gneiss, at (appropriately) 2.6 billion years old, the most ancient of all the 26 treasures.
We then began a conversation about whether these short pieces of highly personal writing, essentially fictions created in response to the allocated objects, had any place in a museum whose chief purpose is the presentation of fact. To elaborate on the question, I asked Alison if she had ever written a novel about an historical character for whom she had also written a biography. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘more than once. It’s all about filling in the gaps, you see.’
And that, it seems to me, is what the whole 26 Treasures project has been about – filling in the gaps. Mostly we stand in front of objects in museums armed only with the factual information provided by curators. We may be intellectually or aesthetically engaged by them, but if our imaginations aren’t kindled we are seldom going to make the more human, more emotional connection with them and their time and place of origin.
26 Treasures encouraged the writers, first, to imagine the stories around these objects, and then to communicate those to the museum’s visitors. The stories don’t alter the facts any more than Alison Weir’s novels alter their underlying historical truths, but they do enhance them. It’s no surprise that so many of the 26 writers came away from the project with a distinctly proprietary feeling about their objects; though the Gown of Repentance, unsurprisingly, stirred no such feelings for me.
But filling in the gaps is something we are naturally inclined to do as imaginative creatures. It’s what I constantly tell business writers. You don’t need to give us the kitchen sink. You can easily get rid of half of what you’ve said and your audience will still get it. We’re hard wired to read between the cracks. We imagine and intuit and do very effectively all those unmeasurable things that the business world finds so alarming. If we didn’t we would have been savaged by sabretooths or trampled by mammoths millennia ago.

To see all the 26 Treasures at the National Museum of Scotland click here.