Thursday, 30 September 2010

Dawn chorus

Finca el Tornero de Abajo is the Spanish home of my childhood friend, novelist Robin Pilcher. A chestnut farm on a hillside in the Sierra de Aracena, 100 kms northwest of Seville, it’s a place of magical light, long views to distant ridges, tumbling wooded slopes and clear, clean air.

One wakes there to a morning chorus of dogs, roosters and a donkey, their voices echoing up from the valley as it floods with sunlight. And there’s another sound when the Dark Angels are gathered there, as we were last week: the sound of human voices raised together in celebration of existence.

Since our courses are about helping people to develop their metaphorical voices as writers, we work on the principle that it’s good for them to exercise their physical voices as well. So the day begins with five minutes of singing, usually a simple but beautiful early Christian chant: ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est (where there is kindness and love, there is god).

Religion has never had any place on our courses and never will, but that’s not to say it can’t offer us a rich seam of music and language. The melody of Ubi Caritas is easy to learn and the sentiment is one that most people find hard to disagree with, even though some might prefer to substitute the word ‘truth’ for ‘god’. Most importantly, though, the chant brings us together in a way that these days is all too rare.

Once upon a time the human voice was the predominant sound wherever one walked on earth, but today it’s drowned out by machines, and even when it’s not, half of us have our ears blocked by headphones. But at Finca el Tornero, our voices ring out in unison across the valley, the chant at once a confluence of sounds, a raising of consciousness and an invocation. It brings us together in a way that reminds us of both our individuality and our shared humanity. It’s good for our lungs and our heads, our hearts and our souls.

And when we come to the other exercises, that word ‘kindness’ is at the root of everything we teach, for kinder words are those that work harder to recognise our human kinship. Nothing is more vital to good writing or any other kind of communication, and yet it's so often missing in the world from which our students come, the world of business. Each year we watch them drink at the well of kindness like desert travellers at an oasis.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Cable news

When the business secretary Vince Cable yesterday announced his plans to shine ‘a harsh light into the murky world of corporate behaviour,’ the director general of the CBI, Richard Lambert, went on the attack, saying: ‘It’s odd that he thinks it sensible to use such emotional language.’

Cable probably hasn’t replied directly to Lambert, but were he to have done so, he might well have echoed the children’s novelist, Philip Pullman, when he was leading a group of writers to protest at publishers’ plans to badge children’s books according to the age band for which they were deemed appropriate (the plan happily fizzled out).

At a meeting with senior publishing industry figures, Pullman opened with an impassioned warning of the perils of attempting to compartmentalise readership. The leading publisher heard him out, then requested that they keep the emotion out of the discussion and consider things rationally – to which, so the story goes, Pullman responded that he would very much prefer to keep the emotion in, if they didn’t mind, since this was an issue about which a great many people felt very strongly.

Vince Cable provoked Richard Lambert’s displeasure by using simple, unambiguous language to pose questions that many people might want to ask: ‘Why should good companies be destroyed by short-term investors looking for a speculative killing, while their accomplices in the City make fat fees? Why do directors forget their wider duties when a fat cheque is waved before them? Capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can.’

This may be rhetoric, depending on your viewpoint, but what is undeniable is that Cable’s choice of words summons images and stirs feelings. Which is where he and Philip Pullman will always have the edge over the dull pedlars of business-speak. They are clever men, both of them, and quite at ease with all things rational, but it’s in their readiness to make room for emotion that they become more than twice as effective as their less inspiring counterparts.

Today we take a group of business people to Andalucia for our annual Dark Angels advanced writing course. Apart from tuning their senses to the sights and sounds and smells of a foreign landscape for five days, we will also use a series of writing exercises to tune up their emotions, because we firmly believe that the best leaders and communicators (and increasingly I wonder if there’s really a difference) are the ones, like Cable and Pullman, who choose to keep the emotion very much in, if you don’t mind.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Treasure trail

Visit the V&A from tomorrow and for the next nine days you’ll see something rather unusual: large red panels with alternative interpretations of twenty-six objects in the museum’s British Galleries. There will be the normal curatorial information: stuffed dragon’s head, Ruritania, c 250 AD, ironwood mount inlaid with mother-of-pearl, taxidermist unknown (possibly George, St). And beside it there will be a more whimsical, reflective piece of writing, 62 words long, which captures some aspect of the spirit of the object.

This is 26 Treasures, part of the London Design Festival, and I make no apology for mentioning it for the second time in as many months. The brainchild of Rob Self-Pierson, a recent graduate of University College Falmouth’s MA in Professional Writing, 26 Treasures invites 26 writers to respond in their own way, in precisely 62 words, to an object with which they’ve been paired. Rob took the idea to the writers’ collective 26, and 26 approached both the V&A and London Design Festival.

The resulting project has grown bigger and attracted more publicity than anyone could have imagined. The V&A has welcomed it as ‘a brilliant idea’, while 26, no stranger to projects of this kind, has set up a second stream of pairings, such was the demand from its members for a place among the original 26 writers (who include poets Andrew Motion - a bust of Homer; and Maura Dooley - an ornate mirror). Soon, anyone will be able to submit 62 words on an object of their choice via the website at

Blogging about the project this week, my fellow contributor, Sara Sheridan, the Edinburgh-based historical novelist, mentions the ‘refreshingly egalitarian’ approach of 26, by which she means that it’s not a tight-knit little literary club, but one that’s open to anyone with an interest in words. And indeed she’s right: 26’s members range from poets and novelists to language experts and brand consultants, marketing and communications people to freelance business writers, advertising copywriters and graphic designers.

26 is testimony to the fact that the writer’s life can come in many shapes and sizes, not all of which involve writing books, but most of which are defined by a common curiosity in the workings of the world and a passion for the words that allow us to investigate them. 26 Treasures is a lovely example of the unexpected paths down which that curiosity and passion can take one. Do drop in and see it if you can. If not, have a look at the website.

26 Treasures, British Galleries, V&A, 18-26 September

Sara Sheridan's blog

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Jam yesterday

The city of Gurgaon, where I’m staying, is a satellite of Delhi, fifteen miles or so from the centre of the capital. Twenty-five years ago it was mainly green fields. Today it’s the sixth largest city in the state of Haryana, home to many global names in the financial services, telecoms, automotive and outsourcing industries, one of whom is my client.

It’s a city literally springing up before one’s eyes, and full of the kind of contrasts you see only in India. Pigs rootle in the rubbish at the gates of towering new corporate HQs. Rajasthani labourers and their brightly-dressed wives live in plastic-sheeting shelters on the construction sites where they work. Bamboo scaffolding clings to high-rise apartment blocks. Cows amble down the centre of the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway.

Yesterday Gurgaon was paralysed by its worst-ever traffic jam. Why? Because the authorities were testing the dedicated lanes that will bring Commonwealth Games traffic to Delhi from outlying areas when the games start in October. In the ensuing chaos of blocked access and exit roads, hundreds of thousands of people (luckily not including us) were stuck on the expressway for up to six hours. Add to that the fact that a late and particularly vicious monsoon has wrecked the surfaces of many of the main roads – the result of cost-cutting and corruption among contractors and officials – and you start to get a sense of what the daily commute for Gurgaon residents may be like in coming weeks.

But this is India. People just shrug and try their best to get to work. If they can’t, they take a day off. Most people that is. Not the Indian national cycle team, though, according to a sad little story on the front of yesterday’s Hindustan Times. The cyclists were brought to Delhi from their training base in Patiala to get in some early practice on the routes where they will compete next month. But things didn’t go quite according to plan.

Despite leaving their accommodation at 4.00am, the state of the roads meant that it took the team two hours to get to the local expressway where they were going to train. They then had just two hours’ cycling before having to stop for fear of being mown down by rush-hour traffic. Then there’s the near-epidemic of mosquito-borne dengue fever, a direct result of standing water from the monsoon, which is hitting Delhi. With no team doctor present to tell them what precautions to take, three of them were immediately struck down with the fever. Another six caught viral infections, leaving only seven of the 18-man squad fit for training, and now – unsurprisingly – they’re back in Patiala again.

What’s this go to do with kind words? Nothing at all. I’ve had enough of language this week with my students. Occasionally it’s good just to write about whatever you feel like - in this case the continuously extraordinary experience of being in India. And it's my twenty-second wedding anniversary today. So there.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Crystal clear

My final event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, last weekend, was hosting the linguistics professor, David Crystal, one of the world’s foremost authorities on language.

A consummate communicator, David was speaking mainly about the wonderfully titled Begat, his new book about the influence of the King James Bible on the English language. The book features the 257 expressions (fewer than he had expected when he began his research, he admitted) that in one form or another have found their way into the common parlance: expressions such as ‘fly in the ointment’, ‘my brother’s keeper’, ‘east of Eden’ and so on.

During the talk he briefly mentioned another book, A Little Book of Language, which has also just come out. I had been sent it by the publishers and had dipped it into before the event. It describes our relationship with language from our very first infant cry to the way we develop our own distinctive ‘voice’ as adults. It is simply and charmingly written, illustrated with pleasing woodcuts, full of fascinating information (‘salary’ and ‘sausage’ have the same etymological root, for example) and peppered with did-you-know pages featuring talking parrots, rhyming slang, foreign language texting and the like.

But it left me with a question: who was it written for? There was nothing on the jacket to say it was for foreigners or children, but there was something in the voice that nagged at me. I asked him when we met before the event. ‘I wrote it for twelve-year-olds,’ he said proudly. ‘What’s more, I road-tested it with several. They didn’t let me get away with anything!’

Twelve-year-olds. Yet this was a book that would entertain and inform any adult reader. In fact, my bet is that one would learn much more about language from this little volume than from any weighty textbook.

More and more I think that the communicator’s greatest gift is to be able to be universal, to speak to everyone. Today I’m going back to Delhi, and one of the exercises I will set the participants on the communication skills workshops I’ll be running is to describe what they do as if to a twelve-year-old. We did it last time and they found it both surprisingly difficult and unexpectedly enlightening.

I once heard the former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, say that the adults he found most interesting were those who know that the child inside them is their soul. One of the things that child craves, in this world of ever increasing complexity, is simplicity. And that child is in all of us. We should remember it when we write.