Friday, 16 December 2011

Choosing your bees

We had our last Edinburgh International Book Festival board meeting of the year yesterday. It has been a fascinating year as world events swirl around us and we’ve found ourselves debating issues as diverse as whether to initiate a cultural exchange involving representatives of the Chinese government, and what might be the pros and cons of a potential new media relationship with the Murdoch organisation (this before the hacking scandal broke and vindicated our eventual decision).
Yesterday it was one of the smaller agenda items that intrigued me most, a snippet in director Nick Barley’s report concerning our bookselling operation. The temporary, tented bookshop in Charlotte Sq turns over nearly £600,000 in the 17 days of the festival. It’s an integral part of the proceedings, a large airy space where you can browse, have coffee and meet authors at after-event book signings. It carries a vast range of fiction and non-fiction, including of course the current titles of all the 700-odd authors appearing. This year our two bestselling titles, both at around 350 copies, were Liz Lochhead’s A Choosing and Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees.
Two poetry titles.
Not fiction. Not memoir. Not biography.
What does that say? That in times of uncertainty we turn to poetry for meaning? That in an age of increasing digitisation, the role of the book as artefact is still essential as the physical setting for poetry? Or simply that a poet at the top of her game, as both these are, can say more to us about the business of being human than any novelist, biographer or historian ever can?
It could be any or all of these things, though it may not be indicative of a trend. Of all the places on the planet where one is most likely to find a concentration of poetry buyers, it’s Charlotte Sq in August.
Nevertheless, it’s heartening; particularly since, as I mentioned last week, we’re hoping to produce a volume of all the writing from the four 26 Treasures projects via the crowd-sourced publisher Unbound. And most of those pieces are poems – not necessarily because people set out to write poems when first confronted with their museum objects, but because the constraint of 62 words ends up shoe-horning most people’s thoughts into the poetic form.
As I write this I realise what an apt metaphor it is for the approach of Christmas, the constraint of the last few days. Everything gets shoe-horned into a frantic burst of last-minute activity. I’m hoping that something creative comes out of it. Inspired present-buying would do. Kindness, love and family togetherness would be better.
See you in 2012.

PS... Since first posting this, Tessa Ransford has emailed to remind me of this, which she has now designated her Christmas poem for 2011:
A Cup of Kindness

Faith, Hope and Charity

wrote St Paul in his hymn to Love

these three abide
In Iraq, explains Canon White on the radio,
Democracy is not what people yearn for
blasted on them as it was through missiles and bombs

What they most want, why can’t we understand,
is water, electricity and kindness
life, communication, things working normally

God only knows
Buddha only knows
Mohammed only knows
everyone knows we want the kindness
which lies at the heart of our being

In Scotland we have given a song to the world
‘a cup of kindness’
to take, to drink, to share

Water, electricity and kindness,
but the greatest of these is kindness

Tessa Ransford

Thursday, 8 December 2011

26 Treasures Unbound

A little over a year ago I went to see Sandy Richardson, head of development at the National Museum of Scotland, to tell him about the 26 Treasures project and to ask if he might be interested in helping us repeat the formula we had developed so successfully with the V&A in London.
This involved pairing 26 writers with 26 objects and inviting them to write a personal response in 62 words, as a new and different way of connecting visitors with objects in the collection. (A sestude was the word newly minted for the 62-word form by 26 founder, John Simmons). Our plan was to take 26 Treasures not only to Scotland, but also, simultaneously, to the Ulster Museum and the National Library of Wales.
   Sandy put me in touch with the museum’s Learning Department and I went along to our first meeting, taking with me 26 Scotland’s new secret weapon: historical novelist, Sara Sheridan. Sara combines ferocious energy, intelligence and organisational skills with irresistible charm and determination. She and the museum’s learning officer, Claire Allan, picked up the project and together headed for the horizon, leaving me to offer the occasional cheer from the stands. (And in a nice completing of the circle, Sandy Richardson has since moved on to a new development job – where else but at the new V&A Dundee.)
Last Saturday, in a long gallery at the museum, 26 Treasures Scotland came together: 26 objects, 26 writers, 1,612 words, a virtuoso jazz saxophonist, a recording of pipe marches and a number of intrigued, if slightly baffled passers-by – the culmination of a year of hard work that was more, much more, than the sum of the parts.
Writer Aimee Chalmers and her jazz accompanist Richard Ingham opened the proceedings with a spellbinding performance, 26 minutes long, in Scots, in the voice of Westlothiana Lizziae, a 340-million-year-old fossil lizard. Then, at intervals over the next three hours, everyone in turn spoke briefly about their object and read their 62 words.
We heard the rattle of shipyard drag chains, the words of piper Daniel Laidlaw VC on the Battle of Loos, a catalogue of medieval cattle diseases, the clattering descent of the Maiden’s blade onto its inventor’s neck, the wry observations of a gilded 18th century teapot, the anguish of rejected would-be Highland emigrants – a chorus of voices as varied as the objects that mark a trail through Scottish history from the Big Bang to the present day. It was a wonderful afternoon, touching, funny and profoundly moving by turns.
Now the exhibition runs through till the end of January. The trail is marked throughout the National Museum of Scotland’s Scottish collection, the words appear beside the exhibits, there’s a beautiful little brochure, and a programme of events will bring museum visitors together with the writers and their objects.
Then there’s Unbound, a new publishing company which invites interested readers to buy subscriptions for a book and publishes it only if, within 90 days, it reaches its funding target. In doing so, Unbound creates stronger links between the books that writers want to see published and that readers want to read. 
   Just as Robert Burns persuaded friends to finance his first collection of verse all those years ago, so now we’re hoping to raise the money for the world’s first collection of sestudes – over 100 in all from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It will be a beautiful reminder not only of a wonderful project but also of how history can be brought alive through the story an object has to tell.
Please visit Unbound and support us if you possibly can.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Who cares wins

Christie Watson must be very pleased. Her book, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, about a Muslim family in Lagos, has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize. Perhaps she has an advantage. She’s a graduate of the famous University of East Anglia Creative Writing course and she was on Radio 4 this morning alongside one of its most illustrious alumni, Ian McEwan. With John Humphrys they were discussing that old chestnut: whether creative writing can be taught.
Humphrys rounded off the conversation by asking Watson what was the most valuable thing she had learnt on the course. ‘Write a book that other people want to read,’ she replied without hesitation, adding that it was not a tutor but an RLF fellow who had given her this piece of advice.
That is interesting. The Royal Literary Fund fellows do in universities a similar job to what I and many other readers of this blog do in organisations. We help with the practicalities of communication, its effectiveness, rather than its underlying messages. Our clients have the thought (in theory), we help them express it to shareholders, customers, colleagues. Similarly, the students have the thought (in theory), the RLF fellows, all published writers, promote good writing practice, helping them with structure and language – though one would earnestly hope that the creative writing students don’t need much help in that department.
The advice may sound obvious. If you don’t write something other people are going to want to read, then no one will read it. But when you’re in the hothouse environment of a creative writing course, other imperatives may take over and writing ‘what I want to write’ may become irresistible. There’s an identical and equally irresistible corporate impulse to say to the world, in exhaustive detail, ‘what we want to say’.
The RLF fellow’s advice directly echoes what we spend our lives telling people. Write what other people want to read (sub-text: not what I or we want to say). For book just substitute report, email, website or anything else that people in business have to write. Those that get the message communicate in a way that connects. Those that don’t don’t. Sadly the latter are still in the majority.
Towards the end of the programme there was talk of another book. This, for me at any rate, had more uplifting associations. It’s by David Jones, chief executive of global advertising giant Havas, and it was called, in a parody of the SAS motto, Who Cares Wins. Its theme is that the really successful businesses of the future will be those who do more than pay lip service to corporate social responsibility; those who can demonstrate in deed that their drive for growth and gain benefits a far wider community than simply their shareholders.
If the tide really is turning this way, and David Jones certainly believes it is, then telling people what they want to hear, writing what they want to read, is going to become more important than ever. At its most basic it’s the difference between monologue and dialogue.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Pencil or pills?

It’s nice to hear that now there’s validation from the health professionals for an exercise we’ve used since we first started Dark Angels; an exercise that’s also used by teachers of creative writing the world over.
Faye Sharpe, who came on the recent Dark Angels course, sent us a link to a blog by Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi Worldwide, who had picked up on an article in the Sydney Morning Herald – such is the way that information whizzes round the globe these days – which, in turn, reported on 20 years’ research into the therapeutic power of writing regularly about what we think and feel.
‘Expressive writing’ the psychologists call it and 15 minutes a day, they say, is enough to make you feel better about yourself. Not only that, it can also be good for blood pressure, the immune system and memory. Over a more prolonged period it can even tackle physical ailments, for example, helping to control cancer-related pain, reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis and increase lung function amongst the asthmatic.
The trick is to write down whatever is in your head, and keep writing without stopping for a set amount of time. A recipe for gibberish one might think. But no. You may not believe you know the story you want to tell yourself, but at some sub-conscious level you usually do, and the results tend to make more sense than you might think they would.
We don’t use the exercise for therapeutic purposes with Dark Angels, more to stimulate creative expression. It encourages people to write more freely, unfettered by the remembrance of rules or the anticipation of readers. But the researchers suggest that the therapeutic value lies in the fact that writing this way allows us to externalise our preoccupations, so that we can see and examine them, almost as if they belonged to someone else.
An American, Julia Cameron, wrote a famous book called The Artist’s Way about leading the creative life. In its slightly less famous companion, The Right to Write, she advocates what she calls ‘daily pages’. This is precisely the kind of expressive writing described by the research: half an hour a day of letting it all out onto paper, best done first thing in the morning, before the working day kicks in properly.
In half an hour you can write three sides of A4 in longhand, if you do as much physical writing and as little stopping and thinking as possible. I know. I did it for six months, a few years ago, and the results were really quite dramatic. I couldn’t speak for the health benefits because I wasn’t alert to that possibility then, but I know it enabled me to resolve a number of preoccupations that had been rumbling away, unaddressed, for a good long time.
Over time, the daily rhythm took hold and put me in contact with a deeper part of myself, helping change the way I saw a variety of things that were going on in my life. It also occasionally rewarded me with a moment of penetrating insight, as on the occasion when I found myself seeing and describing a spring of pure, clear water, bubbling up in a pool of light at the bottom of a deep, dark cave. This I took to be my own creative source, my life force.
Writing this now makes me think I should start doing it again. In fact, we all should. Who needs pills when we’ve got pencils and paper?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Bring on the clowns

Here's a terrific story that surfaced in The Guardian this week in the context of the Pakistan match-fixing convictions, and the fact that corruption and gambling in Asian cricket is seen as a cultural problem.
In 1995 a new mayor took office in Bogota. Among the many seemingly intractable problems he faced was the Colombian dislike of traffic regulations, and the propensity of drivers and pedestrians to flaunt them as a matter almost of civic duty. The resulting chaos on Bogota’s roads was chronic and indescribable.
The mayor, an eccentric mathematician and former rector of the National University, who had been sacked for dropping his trousers in front of a lecture theatre full of noisy students, recognised that a conventional approach would cut no ice with Bogota’s testosterone-fuelled motorists and lawless pedestrians. This called for cultural change. Eccentric though he was, the mayor was smart enough to know that no culture has ever, in the history of the world, been changed by laying on extra policemen.
He duly hired 420 clowns and mime artists to wait at strategic road junctions and traffic lights. When they spotted jay-walkers, they walked after them, imitating their movements. Reckless drivers were also subjected to mocking treatment. It worked beautifully. No one, no matter how macho, was going to be seen thumping a Marcel Marceau lookalike. Within a short time, three-quarters of Bogota’s pedestrians were meekly obeying the traffic signals.
Reading this reminded me that so often when I go into an organisation to run a writing or storytelling workshop, the underlying requirement, even though it’s seldom acknowledged as such, is one of cultural change. The alien language, the inability to talk in an interesting way about practically anything, is symptomatic of something far deeper than a failure of vocabulary or a paucity of imagination. It’s about the way that people who are perfectly bold and assertive as individuals, when thrown together in large groups, develop a collective aversion to risk – so they seek refuge in the banalities and convolutions of business speak.
I can’t help thinking that this is an area in which the mayor’s tactics would work a treat. Imagine a board meeting or sales conference with roving clowns who tooted on a hooter or turned a somersault or pulled a sad face at every cliché, absurd neologism or meaningless abstraction. People would soon start to speak like ordinary human beings again. Laughing at wrong behaviour seems so much better than trying to punish or correct it. After all, by any normal standards, business speak is wrong behaviour.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The rabble

There was a time when I imagined that in my sixties life would have started to become a pleasant, carefree stroll through the sunlit uplands. Ah well …
This is what has been competing for space in my head this week. Why collagen makes better sausage skins than animal gut. Why you should leave your money to a famous university. How to teach a group of administrators in Zurich to write better reports. What to call a new bottling of a famous whisky. How to be interesting and witty about a firm of stockbrokers. Why you should send your children to a certain well-known school. How to encourage groups of chief executives to tell stories. How to market a Dark Angels course in Sweden (not difficult). How to teach 3,000 Indian managers to make better contact with their customers and colleagues (more difficult). What to do about my elderly mother who is losing the plot five hundred miles away in Kent (very difficult). How to finish the almost finished novel I haven’t been finishing for the last eighteen months (impossible). What to do about an epileptic iPhone. And what to write about in this blog.
These are no vague musings, rather a platoon of small but highly trained attention-seekers armed with megaphones. They shout at me first thing in the morning. They whisper and nag me last thing at night. And they know nothing about collaboration. It’s each one for himself and may the loudest, the most insistent win. I was wrong. They’re a rabble, not a platoon.
Earlier this week I sent through the first draft of an interview to its subject, one of the people whose stories feature in the school recruitment brochure. He rang me a couple of days later. It made him anxious, he said. He had talked about certain family issues. It was very personal. 
I replied that the interest for the reader, and the value to the school, lay precisely in the personal aspect of his story; that without it, it might end up reading simply like a CV. He agreed, but still felt that some of what I had written was too close to the bone. We duly toned it down – without, I hope, losing any of the warmth and candour he had transmitted during the interview. The story still makes the point that the school had equipped him well to deal with the challenges of adult life.
On which subject, I spent last night with my son in Newcastle. He’s in his second year of a business studies course. We went out to dinner and he talked about his preoccupations, all entirely real and deserving of serious consideration. I listened to him and thought of my rabble. What a good thing it is, I thought, that we only really acknowledge the things we know we can deal with.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

A small rebellion

The ripples from our last Dark Angels course continue to spread. Two weeks after leaving Inverness-shire, the glue that binds the group together seems to be setting firmer rather than weakening, as is more often the case. Our inboxes bulge daily with new banter, ruminations and aperçus.
This wonderful exchange came in today from Neil Baker, the one full-time professional business writer on the course, also an accomplished writer of short stories (click here to read his latest). ‘Thought I'd report this small act of successful Dark Angels rebellion,’ Neil said.
Client (in a galaxy far, far way - aka New York): "Neil, there's good news and not so good news. I love some of this enormously big thing you've written for me, but it's not working. The case studies are excellent, but the body copy just has too much information."
Me (exasperated): "That is what you asked for. You wanted all that data."
Client: "I know. I was wrong."
Me (at least he's admitted it): "Let me point something out: in the case studies, which you like, I'm telling a story. In the rest, which you don't like, I'm reporting data. People like stories, they don't like data."
Client (after a long, worrying pause, the sound of a penny dropping): "Yes, you're right."
Me: "So why don't I write the whole thing like that? A bit of data where we need it, but let me tell stories. People will like it. They'll want to read it."
Client: "Sure. That's great. That's what I want!"
Me (pushing my luck): "While I'm at it, can I cut out all the business jargon?"
Client: "Can you do that?! You'd make me so happy."
Me: "Yes.”
Quod erat, Tenebris Angelis, demonstrandum.
In another part of the forest … I visited my acupuncturist friend Wenbo Xu for a treatment earlier on this week. I’ve written about him in previous posts. One of these found its way into Room 121, whose title, as well as being a pun on one-to-one, is a nod to 1984, where society is controlled by the language of Big Brother and opponents of the regime are tortured by being confronted with their worst fears in the dreaded Room 101.
I was touched to find that Wenbo had bought a copy of Room 121, which he asked me to sign. As he opened the book a small piece of paper fluttered out. It was the head and shoulders of a man, painstakingly cut out in silhouette from an article Wenbo had read and which he was now using as a bookmark.
The man was George Orwell.
My Chinese friend had no idea of the connection.
Such are life’s delights.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Murder was there none

‘What are the types of people who come on your courses?’ asked a prospective Dark Angels student a couple of days ago.
With last week’s course fresh in my mind I was able to reel off the following list: an archaeologist turned business consultant; a writer of web content for an oil giant; a professor of mental health; a business coach and trainer; a marketing assistant with a firm of fund managers; the owner of a small branding and communications consultancy; an arts curator currently on a Clore leadership programme; and three freelances, one a writer, one a corporate video producer and one a PR agent.
Ten people with extraordinarily different personalities, professional backgrounds and levels of writing experience. A group for whom five nights together in a remote Highland farmhouse might easily have had the makings of an Agatha Christie mystery. But murder was there none. Quite the opposite in fact. They got to know one another and stayed up late drinking, telling stories and singing songs. During the day they listened appreciatively to each other’s writing and supported one another when the going got a little rough. They cooked together and collaborated in pairs on joint writing projects. They embraced fondly, some even shed a tear, when it was time to part. And nearly a week later the emails continue to circulate.
So what actually happened? Was it really just a week long lock-in, a love-in, a bonding session for a non-existent team? No. What happened – what always happens on Dark Angels courses – was that we offered them the freedom and encouragement to discover the connecting power of words. They used words to dig deep into ideas, to reach for half-buried feelings, to say what they really, really meant about their lives, their loves, their work. Through this newly polished lens they could see the words of the world they had temporarily left behind for the lazy, lacklustre, tepid half-truths that so often pass for communication in businesss. And through that newly polished lens they connected with one another, heart, mind and imagination.
That’s the point of Dark Angels and they all got it. To choose the words that make the real human connections, in business, at home or anywhere else. When he came to the final chapter of Howard’s End, EM Forster could have written it just for us. 'Only connect.' It’s all that matters – and now there are ten newly fledged Dark Angels that know it. 

Friday, 21 October 2011

What's the point?

On Tuesday night we took the students on our Dark Angels course to the theatre. We left our lofty perch and plummeted down the hill to Loch Ness, then drove five miles along the lochside to the Victorian community hall in the village of Drumnadrochit (population 813 and known by musicians of my acquaintance as Dropmadrumkit, though more famous as the home of competing Loch Ness Monster centres).
This was no mere amateur dramatics evening. The residents of north Loch Ness-side owe much to the indefatigable Jennie Macfie who, amid a slew of other activities, finds time to programme events at the Glen Urquhart Public Hall, putting on some of the best music and drama that comes to the Highlands. This week it was Six and A Tanner, a one-man show featuring the Glaswegian actor David Hayman, fresh from the Donmar Warehouse where he’d been appearing with Jude Law in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie.
It was a searing, deeply moving, and at times hilarious portrayal of a Glaswegian man ranting at the coffin of his brutal, abusive father, written largely from personal experience by the actor’s friend Rony Bridges. David Hayman held us enthralled for fifty minutes with the power and magnetism of his performance and then, with scarcely a pause, took questions from us for a further forty minutes. As well as talking about the play and his craft, he told us about his work in Afghanistan for the charity, Spirit Aid, which he founded in 2001 to help children whose lives have been devastated by war, genocide, poverty or abuse. This is no celebrity posturing. I learnt afterwards that for several years until his charity gained official recognition, he used to go there illegally, in disguise, so that he could do the work he wanted to.
As we left it occurred to me that there was one question he hadn’t been asked but which would have been of interest to us all: how did his political activism and charity work, which seem to represent the greater purpose in his life, feed into his performances as an actor? The answer might possibly have been something to do with a strong sense of injustice, which was certainly present in the way he portrayed the relationship of the character with his dead father.
Purpose has been a recurring theme in our discussions this week. How can an organisation communicate authentically and effectively to any audience, internal or external, if it isn’t clear about its purpose? To say that the purpose is to make money for shareholders simply isn’t enough any longer.  People want to know, quite reasonably, why the world would be a poorer place without it. Yet it’s a question many organisations seem incapable of answering; and then they wonder why they are in disarray. They could learn much from people like David Hayman, whose purpose seems to infuse every aspect of his thinking and being. In his stage performance and subsequent conversation with us he felt truly joined up. How many businesses or organisations can you think of that really feel that way?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Getting traction

On Monday I’m driving up to the writers’ centre at Moniack Mhor, in Inverness-shire, to run a Dark Angels course. There are several reasons why I’m particularly looking forward to it.
Firstly, I missed not being involved in the Advanced Course in Spain much more than I thought I was going to. Photos, glimpses of the writing produced there, and the flurry of euphoric emails that followed the course, did nothing to alleviate the pinch of something missed or lost. So I’m looking on Moniack Mhor rather like the breaking of a fast.
On which theme, secondly, we haven’t been there for five years and it’s one of my favourite of all the Dark Angels venues. A converted farm and croft house, perched high on a hillside between Loch Ness and Beauly with spectacular views north to Ben Wyvis and the big hills of Wester Ross, it feels wild and remote and quintessentially Highland. I’m even secretly hoping we get some snow next week.
Thirdly, it’s the original and longest in duration (five nights, four days) of all our courses – which is why we haven’t run it since 2006. We felt that in a tougher economic climate people might have difficulty taking so much time off work; though having reinstated it this year we’ve filled it without any trouble, which we now suspect may be the In Business dividend, the payoff from the programme BBC Radio 4 made about Dark Angels back in the summer. In any event, we call this one the Full Foundation Course and it runs from Monday evening to Saturday morning. It’s long enough to take people on a proper journey of creative and personal discovery; to get some real traction, as they say.
This is the nub of Dark Angels, this traction. Yes, our courses are about the words, about honing the craft, dusting off the vocabulary, polishing the syntax – those are all good things for any writer to do. But beyond that they’re about the kindness of the words – the humankindness (as in the title of this blog), that allows us as writers and communicators to make the powerful connections we seek with others who, whether we work with them or share our lives with them in other ways, are mostly just like us; people who become engaged, moved, bored by the same things as we do.
And the best reward for us as tutors is when we see our students first making that connection with themselves, understanding that the very greatest value those words, that vocabulary, that syntax can have is to provide the lens through which they start to see clearly their own purpose. Because only then are they ready to start using the words to make powerful connections with others. 

Friday, 7 October 2011

Autumn tales

I often write this on the train on the way back from Edinburgh. It’s a picturesque journey, across the Forth Bridge and east along the Fife coast, then inland through the soft, fertile farmland of central Fife, a short climb and down again to the glint of the Tay estuary and Perth, and finally into the hills for fifteen miles before the train deposits me at Dunkeld and heads on through the Highlands for Inverness.
Today there’s a real breath of autumn on the air. We’ve had sunshine, cold squally rain, and now a ragged sunset. The geese have been back from Greenland for a couple of weeks and today, the forecasters said, the first snow would dust the high hilltops.
The journey reminds me why I choose not to live in the city, and never more so than after a day like today. There were three long meetings, each one stimulating in its own way, but now I need to be out of the buzz to digest them and let my mind clear. The movement of the train and the passing view of the darkening countryside helps.
The first meeting was with one of the world’s largest producers of collagen casings – which you or I know better as sausage skins. Collagen holds us mammals together. It’s what our connective tissue is made of. And if you scrape it off the underside of cowhide, then subject it to clever chemistry, you can spin it into incredible lengths of absolutely uniform, unblemished, edible sheathing for sausage meat. In a single year this company makes enough to go to the moon and back five times.
The second meeting was with a designer colleague who has worked for a number of years with one of Scotland’s more famous hotels. Now it’s looking for a new voice – and more specifically a fictional character to embody the brand and provide that voice. If the project comes off it will stretch my imagination in enjoyable ways. 
The third meeting was with my branding expert friend and another designer colleague. We were tidying up loose ends on projects we’ve undertaken together for several different educational establishments, all of which, for differing reasons, need to raise either funds or student numbers. Robert is a genius at helping them identify their unique selling propositions, which we then work together to articulate.
Sausage skins, a luxury hotel, an Oxford college and two private schools, one of them for children with specific learning difficulties. What could they possibly have in common? The answer, it struck me as we left Edinburgh, is that they are all searching for stories to tell. Stories that connect them with their audiences just as firmly as that extraordinary monument to Victorian engineering, across which we now rattled, connects the two sides of the Forth.
Take away our stories and we are nothing but husks. The same is just as true for organisations as it is for people. The trick, as I said here a few weeks ago, is knowing which one to tell when.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

My friend the visionary

Almost exactly forty years ago to this day I started my first job in London. Improbable as it seems now, it was as an articled clerk with one of the big London-Scottish firms of accountants. I’ve written about this in a previous post (click here) and I don’t want to repeat myself, other than to say that had I known how to go about doing the things I really wanted to do, I wouldn’t have ended up in the City. As it was, it seemed like a good enough way for a law graduate from Aberdeen University to get himself to London.
I nervously scanned my fellow novices on that first day, and there was one in particular who caught my eye. It was partly because he was the only Indian; partly also because there was a spark there, a hint of mischief and slightly baffled amusement, that set him apart from the otherwise rather stodgy-seeming crowd.
Over the next few weeks we got to know one another well. Almost immediately we were sent off for a fortnight to an accountancy boot-camp somewhere deep in the Worcestershire countryside. It was run by a blustering Yorkshireman called Mick Worthington who couldn’t get his tongue around my new friend’s name, Pramod, and instead referred to him as Ramrod.
In our own ways we were both square pegs in round holes. I was fascinated by his eastern-ness, the music, the joss sticks, the mythology and words of Hindi. He introduced me to good Indian food and eating with my fingers. I took him to my stepfather’s grand house in the Scottish borders over the Christmas holidays and we went pheasant shooting and danced reels.
I lasted only three months in the job but by then our friendship was firmly cemented and we continued to see each other regularly for several years until he qualified and his work took him off to the Gulf. We lost touch then for a couple of years, only to discover, quite by chance, that he was back in London again and living in the same Notting Hill street as me, three doors down. We vowed then not to lose touch again, and we haven’t, despite his subsequently spending a decade in the States, before finally returning to Delhi about fifteen years ago.
Today it’s his business that I travel to India to work for, or rather it was his business until June of this year, when he stood down as CEO of India’s first and biggest outsourcing company. It’s a remarkable story and I’ll tell it another time, but my friend, Pramod Bhasin, my skinny, unassuming, twenty year-old Indian friend, is now a global business leader, revered in Indian business circles as the father of that country’s outsourcing industry, the founder of Genpact, a company that turns over more than $1bn and employs 54,000 people across the globe.
During my trip this week to Hyderabad and Genpact’s newly re-named Pramod Bhasin Learning and Development Centre, I heard this story. On his recent valedictory tour of the company’s many facilities, he visited the training campus. The main building has a large cafeteria where ‘town hall’ meetings, as they’re called, usually take place. On these occasions it tends to fill slowly, a little reluctantly, and people have to be coaxed forward into the proximity of the speaker.
When the word went round that it was Pramod – as he is known by everyone in the business – who was coming, the cafeteria quickly filled to bursting and the people who couldn’t get in spilled back up the stairs and along the corridors, so tightly packed that when he arrived he could hardly make his way through them. When at last he reached the cafeteria, the applause started and wouldn’t stop. It went on and on and on, and all he could do was stand there and wait, visibly moved.
My friend Pramod, the visionary.
I wish I’d been there to see it.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Finca Banega

Today John Simmons and Stuart Delves are in Spain with the Dark Angels advanced group and I’m preparing to leave for Hyderabad in the morning. It has been a strange day, knowing they’re there in that beautiful place, basking in warm autumn sunshine. Much of the time I’ve been wishing heartily I was with them. But I have a different journey to make, and there’s much to look forward to in India.
Right now though, on a grey afternoon in Perthshire, I’m feeling in limbo, caught between those two worlds – or should I say continents. Perhaps because I’ve been to Spain more recently, my thoughts are pulled to southern Europe, and in particular to the private finca that a small group of students will visit tomorrow morning. It’s a beautiful stretch of wild, rolling countryside, mantled with small oak trees, and populated by lazy cattle and black Iberian pigs. A good five miles down a dirt track stands the cortijo, an elegant whitewashed house with a terracotta roof and a large central courtyard. It was built sixty or seventy years ago entirely from materials found on the estate, not just the stone and timber, but even the clay from which the floor tiles were fired.
The land at Finca Banega has been generous with its resources for a long time. Up the hill from the house is a Roman quarry where you can still see the shapes of the millstones that were hewn from the granite, two thousand years ago. The first time we went there, six years ago, and climbed the hill, I was transported back at once. Later, I imagined this scene that might have played itself out there:

We woke at first light
Gracchus and I
Shivered in the Iberian dawn
Unfurled our cloaks
Rose yawning from the bony ground
And broke our fast with sweet, ripe figs
Plucked from the tree
Still cool with dew

Mist hung like bull’s breath
Among the holm oaks
As we hefted satchels on our backs
And climbed the rock-strewn path
Scattering sleepy piglets at our step

Sun rose, shadows melted
Light trickled down the hill
Warming the dust-dry earth
And on the scrawny plain below
Goat bells broke the silence
With their gurgling song

Ahead, a pocked loaf of granite
Reared into the deepening blue
In its shadow lesser boulders
Crouched like pagan worshippers

We downed our satchels, lit a fire
And cooked our porridge
In a haze of aromatic smoke
A small brown scorpion
Scuttled from a crevice
And watched us as we ate
Gracchus crushed it with his sandal
We spat on hands and set to work

All that long hot morning
We bored stone
Wrestling augers
Till our muscles cracked
The air grew thick with dust
And sweat ran down our backs
Our necks and thighs

When the holes were deep enough
I took the twenty-seven oaken pegs
And hammered hard
Driving them one by one
Into their beds of stone

Gracchus lugged the leather bucket
To the spring
Filling it with sweet cool water
That would swell the oak
And split the rock
And conjure rough-hewn millstones
To grind our daily bread

At last we rested in the shade
Dreaming of wives and home
We waited as the sun beat down
And nature’s forces took their course

While far from this forgotten place
Amid the seven hills of Rome
More skilful hands than ours
Made gods of men
And carved their likenesses
In marble from Liguria

Friday, 16 September 2011

Which story?

Next week it’s time again for the annual Dark Angels expedition to Aracena, the small hill town in Andalucia where John Simmons, Stuart Delves and I take a party of students on our Advanced Creative Writing in Business course. For the first time in six years I won’t be there. I’m going back to India instead. But I’ll think enviously of the sweet figs on the tree by the poolhouse, the dawn mist in the valley and sunrise over the hills, the conversations in the courtyard and dinners on the terrace. I’ll miss the sense of companionship that blossoms over those four days, the moments of personal revelation and creative insight.
And I’ll miss the stories. The course begins with the opening words of one of the most famous stories of all time: ‘En un lugar de La Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme …’ ‘In a place in La Mancha, whose name I don't care to remember …’ Don Quixote. It continues with stories written down in daylight and stories told over glasses of wine after dark.
I will be hearing stories in India, although of a rather different kind. With my colleague Paul Pinson I’m running a storytelling workshop for senior leaders from eight of India’s largest companies. What do stories mean to business? How do they work? Where do you tell them? These are the questions we’ll be posing and the simple answers are: everything, effortlessly and everywhere.
We’ll be explaining to our students how the stories we tell about ourselves and our organisations are the very warp and weft of our existences; how they’re the frameworks that hold us together and keep us upright; and how without them we are without structure or identity. And we’ll be impressing on them the importance of listening to the stories other people are telling about them, customers, colleagues, employees.
As I write this, the story of the Welsh mining accident is unfolding. We have just heard the news – unspeakable, intolerable for the four families – that they’ve found one body but that they can’t yet identify it. This story, that has come out of the blue to engulf those four families and the communities they belong to, will shape lives for generations.
Stories – the retelling and interpretation of events – have that power. Even the seemingly trivial can change individual destinies. The really big stories can shape nations.  I think of Scotland, reaching for a new identity but still struggling to shrug off that old story of defeat, clearance, emigration, sectarianism, industrial decline and dependency.
We all have many stories. Knowing which is the right one to believe in at any given moment is not always so easy.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Buen camino (4)

If you'd prefer to read the whole account in one, rather than working backwards through the blog posts, click here.

Once we reached the old part of Santiago with its narrow streets and shady arcades, we knew we were almost at journey’s end. We had spent our first night there before catching the bus back up country for the start of the walk.
After dinner that evening we had strolled away from the restaurant to find ourselves caught up in a swelling crowd, making its way towards the cathedral. Curious, we allowed ourselves to be swept along, and at the very moment we arrived in the square, packed with several thousand people, all the lights went out. For the next thirty minutes we were treated to a spectacular son-et-lumière, projected onto the façade of the cathedral which reared into the darkness like a vast mottled cliff, sculpted by wind and rain into fantastic embellishments and ornamentations.
Even in daylight, seen now across the town rooftops, the spires were impressive – a beacon for footsore, weary pilgrims. We were approaching the cathedral from behind and above. As we passed what looked like a small bishop’s palace with an ornamental garden in front of it, an exuberant group of a dozen or so young pilgrims came in from a side street and broke into song. Now we could see down to the deep archway that led into the cathedral square, and this first glimpse of our destination, combined with the cheerfully raised voices, provoked a strong wave of emotion and I was surprised to feel my eyes start to water. We followed the group down the slope, Sarah hobbling determinedly behind me, and as we approached the archway we began to hear Galician pipes above the voices. In the shadows of the archway was a young piper in traditional dress, accompanied by his dog. He broke into a jig as we entered the arch and the music filled it, quickening our pace for the final few steps. Then we were in the square, suddenly overcome with emotion. We stood there and hugged each other and wept.
The square is at least the size of a football pitch. It was filling up with tourists, locals and pilgrims, many sitting or lying stretched out exhausted on the flagstones, surrounded by their walking paraphernalia as if in some modern caravanserai. It was eleven o’clock and we’d made it with an hour to spare. We limped to a cafe just off the square, ordered coffee and took off our boots to wait there for midday. Though we’d walked less than a fifth of the distance some of the other pilgrims had covered, the sense of achievement was almost overwhelming.
Later we made our way into the cathedral and found a pew, stowing our walking gear like everyone else at our feet. The mass lasted an hour and at one point priests from half a dozen different countries stepped forward in turn to address the congregation in their native tongues, all framed by the fantastically ornate gilded cave in which sits a larger-than-life-size effigy of Saint James. Sadly they didn’t swing the botafumeiro, the enormous incense burner which is suspended from high above the apse and takes several priests to set in motion. Originally intended to fumigate travel-stained pilgrims, today its purpose is more theatrical than hygienic.
Before the service began we had glimpsed our Australian friend and exchanged congratulatory smiles. As we left the cathedral we realised that we badly wanted to find her and tell her how much she had come to represent the spirit of the camino for us. We never did. Over the next twenty-four hours we scanned bars and plazas and cafes but she wasn’t there. Perhaps she had already left for Finisterre. She will never know how much she gave us heart for our journey.
But perhaps that is what happens on the camino. Unknowingly we all give each other heart, because of the common purpose, the connection to some long, deep pulse of humanity. Why else would we have felt as we did, that our hearts were almost bursting, when we finally walked into the cathedral square?

We booked our trip through

Friday, 2 September 2011

Buen camino (3)

Mount Joy was not joyous that morning. Low cloud and light drizzle obscured the distant cathedral. Having completed our final climb we’d been walking along a wooded ridge that seemed to go on forever, past a vast timberyard, past the sprawling campus of TV Galicia, and now we were resting in the shadow of a large and hideous monument commemorating the visit to Santiago of Pope John Paul II.
Sarah’s shin had been growing more and more painful. I’d realised fairly early on that being solicitous was no help and that the best thing was just to keep going, since that was clearly what she was determined to do. Some of the time I walked in front, some of the time behind. I would never have thought that the sight of a bedraggled figure plodding doggedly along in the drizzle, head bent beneath a backpack, grimacing at every other step, could stir such strong feelings; but as the kilometres passed my admiration grew and grew and my heart swelled with it.
Our Spanish friends, Helen and Blas, daughter and father, caught up with us as we rested, sitting on a low wall. They were struggling too, they admitted. But there was something uplifting about their closeness to one another and I think we drew energy from it. We set off again, down into a valley on whose opposite side Santiago sprawls across the shoulders of another plateau. We crossed over a motorway and into the outskirts of the town and all at once there were brass scallop shells set into the pavement, beckoning us along the final leg of the camino.
Over the last twenty-four hours we had also been keeping an eye out for our young Australian friend. We had seen her a couple of times during the early part of the journey and each time her warmth, openness and cheerfulness had spurred us on. At our last meeting, with nearly five hundred miles under her belt, we’d asked her what she was going to do next. ‘I’ll just have to keep going to Finisterre,’ she’d replied with a smile.
Cape Finisterre falls short by sixteen kilometres of fulfilling its claim to be the end of the earth; Cabo da Roca in Portugal is actually the westernmost point of continental Europe. But for pilgrims who find they can’t stop in Santiago, the extra eighty kilometres lead to an unequivocal terminus in the form of a rocky headland pounded by Atlantic breakers.
By now our Australian friend had come to embody the spirit of the journey for us, and we both felt that we needed to see her one more time. Meanwhile, there were still a couple of kilometres of hard pavement to go to the centre of Santiago. It felt odd to be dragging ourselves through busy city streets, carrying our packs and poles, travel-stained and exhausted, while people in everyday clothes walked by on their way to the shops or to work – though we were by no means alone. A gathering stream of other pilgrims, singly, in pairs or in little groups, threaded their way through the crowds, their compasses similarly set on the cathedral square.
To be continued...

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Buen camino (2)

We’d imagined that the camino would be an endless succession of travellers’ tales as we moved along in a happy throng of pilgims, slipping easily into conversation with whoever took our fancy. 
It wasn’t quite like that. The walking required concentration and effort as we climbed and dipped on a variety of surfaces – from tarmac to stony shepherds’ paths – through wooded hills and farmland, ever watchful for the next yellow arrow.
People walked determinedly, purposefully. Many had been on the road for a month and had already covered more than 400 miles by the time we joined them. Now they were scenting journey’s end. They were young, too, surprisingly so. We had pictured middle-aged pilgrims, but the majority were in their twenties and thirties – and Spanish.
But there were older walkers as well, and a good smattering of other nationalities. At our first stop, on the first day, we got talking to a spirited young Australian and her Dutch companion. They had four weeks’ walking behind them and we longed to know what it had been like for them. But rather than regale us with their stories she wanted to know about us, where we were from and how long we had been going. We told her we were a mere two hours into our journey. She sent us on our way with a warm smile and words of well-wishing and encouragement.
Later that day we fell in with a solitary Englishwoman, a faded upper-class rose. She was at pains to assert her independence, though we sensed her need for conversation. There was a story there but neither of us felt inclined to hear it. Perhaps towards the end of the journey we would have welcomed her company more than we did. But this was the first day and the camino hadn’t yet begun to pry us open.
On the second day we travelled for an hour or so with a pair of older New Zealand women, both Steiner teachers. The one I walked with began to tell me about her adult son who had become schizophrenic through drug abuse. She related her story with the detachment of someone who needs to protect themselves from the rawness of the truth. I was startled to find myself thinking that as a fellow pilgrim I should be doing something more than simply listening. There was obviously nothing for me to say, so for the rest of her story I concentrated on listening with as much empathy as I could.
On the third day – at nearly thirty kilometres, the longest and most exhausting day of the journey – we walked for a while with a Spanish father and daughter. Helen was in her late twenties and had been working as an education officer for the Spanish embassy in Niger. Blas, her father, ran a sports shop in Madrid. A lean seventy-year-old with an easy stride and a broad grin, he seemed to be bursting with the joy of his daughter’s company. She was equally happy to be spending precious time with him. She carried the heavier pack and attentively, though unnecessarily, placed a hand at his elbow when they came to a road. Their easy companionship and affection for one another touched us both.
These encounters and conversations, brief as they were, were gradually revealing a broader consciousness of which, like migrating salmon, we were as much a part as everyone else on the journey. It was this, perhaps even more than any personal determination, that drew us out from the shelter of the eaves and back into the rain with ten kilometres still to go on that last morning of the Camino de Santiago.
To be continued …

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Buen camino (I)

At five am in the Galician countryside it’s very dark. We felt like the only people in the world as we walked down the lane from our hotel. The sky was full of stars, a dog barked distantly and we carried our walking poles so as not to clatter on the road as we passed through the sleeping hamlet. This was our fifth and last morning on the Camino de Santiago, and we had twenty-two kilometres to walk by mid-day in order to reach our destination, the daily pilgrims’ mass in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela.
Shortly we came to a crossroads. The camino is marked mainly with yellow arrows painted onto trees, walls, telegraph poles, even the tarmac itself. The paint fades and here it was pitch dark. We took a guess and twenty minutes later found ourselves climbing into the next small town described in the guidebook. As we walked up the deserted main street another soul appeared, carrying a heavy backpack and wearing a headlamp. We fell into step with him gratefully, feeling like the novices we were.
Soon the path left the town and we were back in darkness again, climbing a leafy tunnel through oak woods. Our light-bearer was not talkative. A Madrileño, he had been walking the northern, coastal route for a week at thirty-five kilometres a day, nearly double the distance we’d been covering. His pace left little breath for conversation. But for the moment we needed him, so we marched smartly along behind him.
Other pilgrims were beginning to drift onto the path from their lodgings, solitary walkers, couples, little groups, sleepily mumbling ‘Buen camino’ to one another and talking in pre-dawn whispers. Pale pinpoints of light wavered through the woods ahead of us, the oaks now replaced by tall, scented eucalyptus trees. We could have left our Lucifer now, but it seemed we had become attached to him, drawn along in his slipstream as he forged on, overtaking everyone in his path.
Dawn was a long time coming. Clouds had drifted in and a fine drizzle was falling – the first we had seen in five days – when the sky at last began to lighten. We had been climbing slowly but steadily for nearly two hours by now and a glance at the map showed that we had already covered more than eight kilometres. I was starting to worry that we would burn out at this pace, particularly since Sarah had begun to complain of an aching shin at the end of the previous day’s walking. So finally, though not without a certain reluctance, we thanked our guide for his light and watched him disappear down the path ahead of us.
We were now on top of a plateau and making our way round the perimeter of Santiago’s airport. For half an hour or so we saw no other pilgrims. Perhaps we had missed the way and should have stayed with him. Or perhaps we really had overtaken everyone else, since no one would be joining the camino now until we reached the viewpoint and chapel at Monte del Gozo (Mount Joy – so named because, on a clear day, it offers weary pilgrims their first glimpse of the cathedral spires). Here minibuses disgorge day visitors to walk the final few kilometres into Santiago.
We dropped over the edge of the plateau to where, as the path met a main road, an elderly man was up early, handing out leaflets for his guest house. Although it was almost full daylight now we could see no waymarkings. My instinct said we should go right, but we asked the man and he directed us left. After an anxious twenty minutes, we picked up the signs again and at the same time sighted another group ahead.
The drizzle was getting heavier and Sarah was beginning to limp. I knew she was in pain; I also knew that, having initially dismissed the idea of attending the mass as being insignificant to non-believers such as us, over the last twenty-four hours, for reasons neither of us really understood, completing the journey at the proper hour, in the proper manner, had started to become the most important thing in our lives. This was soon to become a true journey of the heart, a fact which physical exertion, immersion in a new landscape, curiosity about our fellow pilgrims, and the gradual return of rusty Spanish, had so far largely conspired to keep from us.
We took a break, sheltering from the rain under the eaves of a house. Sarah changed her footwear and we ate the sandwich the hotel had provided for breakfast. Then, with ten kilometres still to go, we set off again.
To be continued …