Friday, 26 November 2010

Gone dancing

Last Tuesday I went along on an Imagination Club outing. The club was set up three years ago by Barclay Price, director of Arts & Business Scotland, on the Heineken principle: that it would refresh the parts – well, one part in particular – that everyday organisational life doesn’t reach.

Three or four times a year, a small group of us meet for a few hours to do something that none of us have ever done before, and stretch our imaginations in the process. ‘We’ are mainly people from the higher echelons of the Scottish academic, arts, cultural and enterprise world, plus me as a kind of official recorder.

So far we’ve made short films at the BBC, spoons in the jewellery department of Edinburgh College of Art, and I can’t remember exactly what in an imaginary sandpit in Barclay’s office; written poems in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, visited Jupiter Artland, a private sculpture park outside Edinburgh, played the World Game in a converted boathouse on the Fife coast, brainstormed new uses for touch-screen technology in a high-tech lab at Edinburgh University’s Informatics Department, and last Tuesday – danced.

The majority of us, I suspect, were dreading it – quite needlessly as it transpired. It was fantastic. We had an empty ballroom to ourselves, and an inspirational leader in the person of dancer and choreographer, Christine Devaney. Within half an hour she had us unashamedly gliding and swooping, springing and leaping around the huge space, lost in what we could make our own bodies do, entranced by the feeling of physical freedom. Within an hour we were in groups, rolling and tumbling and writhing in coils. And for the finale, all inhibition by now cast to the winds, we choreographed our own short dance pieces.

Total absorption, self-forgetting, is the thing that has characterised the best of these outings. This was certainly true of Tuesday, though it was accompanied by a strong sense of physical awareness, as if we were experiencing the world almost entirely through our bodies, and the relationship of our bodies to the others around us. It was, I realised afterwards, an almost unconscious form of communication; more than that, a form of communion, and a more powerful one than anything we normally achieve with words, outside perhaps poetry.

Most of us these days lead less physical lives than at any time in human history. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson’s famous remark about academics: our bodies have become a form of transport for our heads, they’re how we get our brains to meetings. This can’t be a good thing. Dancing and movement reminds us of something important about ourselves, something without which we’re incomplete.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Temples of Mammon

Thirty-nine years plus a few weeks ago I started my first job. Incredible though it now seems, it was in the City.

I had graduated with a law degree from Aberdeen University but wanted neither to practice law nor to stay in Scotland. What I really wanted to do was write stories and make records, but my father was an advocate, my stepfather a banker, and in those days one toed the line. So I signed up with one of the big London Scottish firms of accountants. ‘My boy,’ I seem to remember someone saying, ‘with a law degree and a CA under your belt, the world’s your oyster.’

I certainly remember my first day. The offices were on King William St, on the north side of London Bridge. As I walked anxiously down from Monument tube station, a great grey tide surged towards me across the bridge, shoes shined, brollies furled and bowlers bobbing up and down amid the throng. It was an unnerving sight.

I lasted six months. Despite, on an audit in Watford, writing the report I was asked to produce in the style of a Mickey Spillane thriller, I’m proud to say that I left voluntarily. By the following spring I was working in a West End bookshop and six months after that, en route to South America for a year on the road. My first attempt at grown-up life had failed magnificently.

Yesterday I found myself back among the temples of Mammon, a couple of bridges upstream from where I’d begun, running a day’s training for one of the country’s larger accountancy firms. There was an odd and brief moment of déjà vu as I approached their offices, but it didn’t last long. It seems almost superfluous to note that so much had changed. The art in the lobby. The pink shirts and short skirts and no ties. The information screens and bottled water and bowls of fruit.

It would be easy to say that the one thing that hadn’t changed was the language, but it wouldn’t be true. The world of taxation, accountancy and financial advice, let alone City regulation, is an infinitely more complex one than it was nearly four decades ago – and the language reflects it. Whereas many things have changed for the better, it’s probably fair to say that the language has changed for the worse. But attitudes also are changing and there’s now an awareness that it doesn’t have to be that way, which of course is why I was there.

That seems to me like a straw worth clinging to. Even down in the oily, throbbing maintenance area of the economic engine room there are people keen to make space for a few kind words.

Friday, 12 November 2010

War Horse

I seldom watch breakfast TV but I was staying in a hotel on Wednesday night, so yesterday morning I did. One of the guests was the former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo. The stage production of his story War Horse is about to go to Broadway, while Steven Spielbeg has also just finished filming it.

Animals have always been a challenge in the theatre. I remember going to see the original version of Equus at the Old Vic in the early ‘70s. Then they used large wicker horses’ heads worn by brown-clad actors. It worked. Equus was a profoundly disturbing theatrical experience.

Things have moved on. As we saw yesterday in a live studio demonstration, the horses in War Horse are whole, life-sized animals. The bodies and heads are wire armatures covered in gauze, the legs hinged sections of wood. Each horse has three attendant grooms in brown boots, breeches and waistcoat, who are really the puppeteers. They stand beside the animal as if tending to it and reach up, down or inside to manipulate the different parts of it with their hands.

So lifelike are the animal’s movements, so distinct its personality, that even in the brief couple of minutes the demonstration lasted I quickly forgot about the puppeteers. It was as if they had become transparent. It was a stunning example of how easily we can be persuaded to see only what someone wants us to see.

The three actor-puppeteers, we were told, were known respectively as Head, Heart and Hind; and this, I think, is the reason that this trompe l’oeil worked so beautifully. Working together, each immersed in his or her role, they conjured a living, breathing, feeling animal so real we could almost see its breath.

Head, heart and hind. I couldn’t help thinking that it’s sometimes helpful to think of organisations in anthropomorphic terms too. It reminds us that as well as a head, most organisations also have a heart, although they don’t always know where to find it. And they certainly have a hind. It’s what a lot of them spend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to cover. But the main problem is that unlike in War Horse, their puppeteers so seldom seem to be working from the same script.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Truth in Assynt

I’m reading a beautiful book. At The Loch of the Green Corrie is by Scottish novelist, poet and mountaineer, Andrew Greig.

Part memoir, part meditation on fishing and wilderness, part tribute to another Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig, it speaks to me particularly because it’s set in Assynt, a wild corner of the northwest Highlands where I’ve spent time making music during each of the last two summers, and where the Lewisian Gneiss that thrusts skywards through grass and heather is one of the oldest geological formations on earth. (Scotland drifted around a lot, for a very long time, before finally settling where it is now.)

At one point Andrew Greig describes a childhood game he and his brother used to play. They called it ‘Copsbrook’ after a third, imaginary player. He says this: ‘I have never known a game as demanding, as absorbing, as pure and difficult as playing Copsbrook – unless it is trying to write a poem, a true poem, that has no visible constraints but bends around its inner necessity.’

I really love that: ‘… bends around its inner necessity.’ There’s the sense of shaping a rim to a wheel, endowing the core of a thing with the means of its own movement into the world. And I love it because true as it is of writing a poem, it’s also true of the whole business of communicating.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the value of constraints in the creative process. Here Andrew Greig describes the constraint-less constraint. This is where the essential truth of what you want to get at gives shape to what you have to say.

All of which implies an honesty, a seeking-after-truth, that might seem all too rare in the business world. And yet … I truly believe people are longing for it. They’re fed up with corporate platitudes and spin, with failure of nerve and the bland drivel that results, with disingenuity and vacuity.

I ran a workshop today for a very large technology business. The participants were senior people, educated, intelligent, articulate, experts in their own field. The feeling of longing to let what they had to say be bent around its inner necessity was almost palpable. I hope I encouraged them to reach for it.

It’s very simple really.

People like truth.