Friday, 27 August 2010

Who dares ...

I have spent most of this week in Charlotte Square, home of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, drinking too much coffee, eating too many sandwiches, but revelling in my annual literary fix – the company of other writers.

Some are my good friends; some are acquaintances, to be caught up with once a year in the cluster of yurts that serve as the authors’ hospitality and backstage area; some are my heroes, literary giants whose mere presence reduces me to a state of tongue-tied awe; and some are those whose work intrigues me and whose events I feel brave enough to chair.

This year the latter include four household names – William Dalrymple, Roddy Doyle, Melvyn Bragg and Alexander McCall-Smith, and three less widely known but no less interesting writers – the veteran Scottish novelist Allan Massie, the linguistics professor David Crystal, and the Observer’s deputy editor Robert McCrum.

Why did I choose these seven? Hard to say. Their subjects range from the Irish Troubles to the South Bank Show, Indian mystics to Precious Ramotswe and the chattering classes of Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions, the Royal Stuart dynasty to the King James Bible and a global version of English. Someone else might find a common thread, but right now I lack the energy or inclination to look for it myself.

One thing is obvious, though. They are all masters of their craft – or art, depending on how you see it. And it’s impossible to spend time here in Charlotte Square without - to return to last week's theme - reflecting on the gulf that exists between the way these writers communicate, and the kind of communication that goes on daily in offices, conference centres and other business venues around the country.

My interviewees are people who inspire because they do not stand apart from themselves. To hear them speak is to receive the whole of them, not some filtered version where their real personalities have been subordinated to the needs of the narrow interest group they serve, their language reined in by the processes and formulations of their professions. They know how to stand on the hill where they can see widely, and communicate their vision in simple but well chosen words. They’re not afraid to employ imagery, metaphor, humour – all the tools we use daily to communicate with one another as emotionally functional human beings.

Imagine the wonders that could be achieved if our business leaders could learn this one simple thing: that to communicate well, to inspire, one must commit all of oneself. One must dare to reveal one’s personality.

Thursday, 19 August 2010


Yesterday – to borrow the immortal words of the unknown football commentator – was a day of two halves. Well … seven-eighths and one-eighth to be more precise, but the contrast was less unevenly marked.

There’s an equation that goes: Edinburgh plus professions equals language that's utilitarian at best, anachronistic at worst. There are no high desks, wing collars or quill pens any longer but their traces linger in the Adam cornices, the panelling and picture frames of many a fine New Town building; and they make their presence felt in some of the more fustian turns of phrase – ‘upon receipt of’ for example – that are still liable to grace an accountant’s report or a lawyer’s letter.

I spent the large part of yesterday running a workshop for one of these august institutions, a professional body. I was there because they recognise that they need to bring their language into the 21st century, particularly at the point where they have to deal with their twenty-odd thousand members; although the waters are muddied by the fact that they are also the regulator for their profession, so the poor souls in the membership team lead a schizophrenic existence, wearing customer service smiles one moment and traffic warden’s frowns the next.

But the will to change was there and my small group worked hard to dust away the cobwebs and cast off the shackles of a century or more of institutionalised, functional language. ‘Members are people too,’ said one of them at one point, and I raised a silent cheer. No one was expecting this group to become poets or novelists overnight, but they recognised that there were human connections to be made, as well as a fight to be fought.

Once the workshop was over, I walked along to Charlotte Square for a restorative cup of tea at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Here in the magical tented village that springs up every August, there is not a linguistic shackle in sight. Far from being a constraint, language here is celebrated – and winged. It takes flight, it moves, inspires, tickles, infuriates, terrifies, thrills. It flows through the marquees like the life force itself and everywhere you look people are immersed in it, up to their necks in words, up to their eyes in stories, up to the crowns of their heads in ideas.

A mere half mile apart, here were two groups of people, the one effectively hemmed in by language, the other entirely liberated by it. And, not for the first time, I found myself thinking how much the world of work has to learn from the world of culture…

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Lingua franca

For the second year running we have been on a walking holiday in the Italian Alps with a couple who are among my wife’s oldest friends. Our relationship is that relative rarity – a foursome in which all members get on with each other equally well.

Hughes is French and Caroline English, though she has lived in France for nearly four decades. My wife, Sarah, is Scottish but was raised in the French Alps. She and Caroline are bilingual. Hughes’s English has a certain idiosyncratic fluency all of its own. My French is the weakest link, though serviceable enough for most of our conversations to be conducted in a comfortable blend of both languages.

Our walks this year were punctuated by stops to photograph the glossy, docile cows that graze the high summer pastures, whose softly clinking bells offer an almost constant accompaniment to our alpine rambles. An architect by profession, Hughes is also an artist who, as he approaches retirement from his architectural practice, is reacquainting himself with the easel by painting portraits of these delightful creatures.

But it’s not his buildings or paintings that we talk about so much as his novels, for Hughes is also a novelist. And this is where we’re limited by our respective linguistic proficiencies, for neither of us is really able to read the other’s work. So instead, we tell each other the stories of our books as we walk. This is a thoroughly companionable acitivity. It’s also energising: rather as work songs help fishermen haul in their nets, so storytelling is a wonderful aid to tired legs.

It can be instructive: hearing oneself speak aloud a story of one’s own creation throws its strengths and weaknesses into sharp relief. And in this context, the effort to make myself understood requires me to be more than usually precise, which in turn makes me more sensitive to the nuances, the authenticity and integrity, of the narrative. My listener's particular attentiveness heightens my comfort or discomfort in the telling of my own story, and there on the mountainside, issues I can fudge on the page come to stare me in the eye.

But most of all it’s revealing. We have probably learnt as much about one another from these fictions, as we have from all the conversations we’ve had over the years. They have enriched an already cherished friendship because to invent a serious story is to engage with one’s deepest human preoccupations; and whether we mean to or not, we lay ourselves bare in the telling of them.