Thursday, 24 March 2011

More dreams and portents

Next week we go to Merton College, Oxford to run the second of our biennial Dark Angels masterclasses. It will be an exciting few days. Not only do we have BBC Radio 4’s In Business team joining us for part of the time to make a programme about the course, but also the best-selling author Philip Pullman is coming as our guest speaker. There’s a special resonance here because Philip’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, and John Simmons’s book, Dark Angels, from which our courses take their name, both owe inspiration to Milton’s Paradise Lost; while Philip's literally fabulous landscape is a kind of ever-present backdrop to our own work. As if that weren’t enough, we’re housed in one of the most ancient Oxford colleges, one of whose boasts is the oldest continuously functioning academic library in the world, built in 1373. I remember from last time we were there the sense that wherever one turns at Merton, knowledge seeps from the masonry.
  Our ten students are all from business, and they represent activities as diverse as television and Formula One motor racing, environmental and communications consultancy, and freelance writing. They have all previously been on our advanced course in Spain, so they know the score. As always it will be a cocktail of the personal and the professional, with exercises related both to the world of work and to their individual creativity, as we continue to make the point that good writing is good writing, no matter what the context; and in business, good writing means better communication, better connections, better decision-making, better relationships, better pretty well anything you care to name.
  As preparation, we ask everyone to re-write a piece of typically bland financial services writing in the style of a novel we have allocated them, a novel that has a connection – either through its author or subject – with Oxford, for example: Brideshead Revisited, The Hobbit, Zuleika Dobson, The Hunting of the Snark (not a novel, I know), Jude the Obscure, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and others. As well as offering plenty of scope for amusement, the exercise makes serious points about tone of voice and the value of a more imaginative approach to writing about business subjects. There will also be poems and stories, a field trip into the city itself, and one-to-one tutorials.
  I'm hugely looking forward to it. It will be an intense three days and we tutors will get as much out of it as the students. Though this, which came in yesterday from a friend in response to my two recent posts about Tycho Brahe, elevates the whole concept to new and undreamt of heights:
  “A propos your dream the other week, I had a dream last night you might find interesting. Dark Angels had taken out a whole page advert in a broadsheet – I think it was the whole front of the Guardian, but no masthead on it, with your website address www etc... in very large letters going right across the page (and underlined) with wings either side, but half a wing, a sort of capital D on its side... I can't remember what it said exactly but the gist was that with everything going on in the world it was time for people to listen to what the Dark Angels had to say to change the world for the better. I can remember thinking, in the dream, that I would need to get in touch with you to help because you would be inundated with people contacting you. There was also some sort of image, I think it might have been Mount Rushmore, but instead of the presidents, it was the faces of you, Stuart and John in the rock.”
  So, no pressure next week, then … And Susan, stand by your phone.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Good Friday

My visitation by Tycho Brahe last week seemed to strike a chord. Many people responded with suggestions as to what I should do or think – and I’m grateful to you all.
  Among other things I was recommended to do ten minutes’ automatic (stream of consciousness) writing about him; to rejoice at the beneficence of the universe and welcome wild imaginings (a little difficult right now, given what has since overtaken the poor, poor Japanese, let alone the Bahrainis and Libyans – what is happening in the world?); to peruse a long list of anagrams of his name; to take dinner at the Brahehus which appears to be a derelict Swedish castle; to spare a thought for an old friend who is currently bound for Svalbard to act in a movie; to buy a tychobrahe effects pedal for an electric guitar; to investigate the lunar crater named after him; and to start keeping a dwarf. Personally, I’d prefer an elk.
  But the best response of all began like this: “Have I ever told you that taking five minutes away from work to read your blog is one of my favourite things about Friday? I don't think I have. But it's true.” You have now. Thank you, Roshni Goyate, poet.
  This, of course, is one of the main reasons I write it, or rather keep writing it, when sometimes on a Thursday afternoon it feels like the very last thing I have the energy or inclination for. But I’ve kept it going now for slightly over eighteen months. Last week’s was the seventy-fifth post, and make of that what you will, oh ye Brahephiles. Anyway, I carry on partly because of the writer’s compulsion to write; partly because of some kind of work ethic that seems to have attached itself to this particular activity – or maybe it’s nothing more complicated than a rhythm. Whatever it is, it makes me feel peculiar at the thought of defaulting for even a week.
  I also write it because it helps me to clarify my own thoughts about things. As EM Forster so memorably said: “How can I know what I think till I see what say?” And then, of course, I write to be read. What writer doesn’t? I’ve kept all the responses and comments I’ve received since starting the blog. Today in my ‘blog’ email folder there happen to be 666 of them (and if Tycho being the seventy-fifth post tickled your fancy, stick that in your bong and smoke it). But presentiments of The Beast apart, knowing that what I say has meaning for others completes the circle in the most satisfying way.
  So please, dear readers, keep on commenting and emailing. I know that becoming a follower confers no special privileges, and can be a little technologically challenging, but apparently it makes the search engines happy. Simply passing on the link to your friends is enough to make me happy. With apologies to René Descartes and Latin scholars everywhere, it looks increasingly as if blogito ergo sum.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Tycho Brahe

On Monday night I had a very strange experience. It had almost the quality of a vision. We had spent the weekend in Wales with my daughter and her family. On Monday morning we had left early to travel back by train, and I had stopped off in Edinburgh on the way home for a meeting. It had been a long day and, unusually, I had gone straight to sleep without reading.
  Sometime during the night I had a dream. I remember almost nothing about it now, except that two words surfaced. I didn’t know what they meant but I could see them very plainly, as if printed in bold capitals: TYCO BRAHE. I tried to understand them but couldn’t and so, since they had no obvious meaning for me, I began in the dream to imagine that they might make a good name for a fictional character, an Albanian perhaps or some other Eastern European. They remained with me for the rest of the night, very insistently it felt, almost as if someone was shouting them at me in my sleep. And they were there in my mind, perfectly clear and still perfectly inexplicable, when I woke up next morning.
  I mentioned it to Sarah as we were getting up. She suggested I google the words. I did, over breakfast, and almost fell off my chair when up came Tycho Brahe (correctly spelt with an ‘h’). A sixteenth century Danish nobleman, astronomer and alchemist, Brahe, it transpires, was a major figure in the development of science. Way ahead of his contemporaries in the accuracy of his astronomical observations, he was the first person to argue that the heavens were not perfectly fixed and immutable. He was also extremely wealthy and a wild character who had lost the bridge of his nose in a duel when he was young and wore a metal prosthesis throughout his life. He held lavish gatherings in his castle, kept a dwarf jester, whom he believed to be clairvoyant, beneath his dining table, and also a tame elk that was said to have drunk so much beer at a party one night that it fell down the castle stairs and died.
  As I read all this, a very dim bell began to ring. Brahe is just the kind of character that crops up on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time. I checked and sure enough he’d been mentioned in the programme back in January 2008. Now another even dimmer bell was ringing. In 2007 I had researched medieval perpetual motion machines for my novel The Reckoning, and I thought it possible that his name might have come up then. But my notes are in a box in the attic and I didn’t have the energy to go rootling for them. Not that it would have made a great deal of difference, for even though I had now established that I probably had heard of him before, it was at the very least three years ago.
  So I’m left with the question, Why now? And why so insistent? I’ve looked for connections. My son-in-law is quite knowledgeable about esoterica, but Brahe definitely hadn’t been mentioned over the weekend. Perpetual motion … well, I suppose I could argue that my new granddaughter represents the genetic version of it. But even so, what then? Am I supposed to write about him? Am I meant to learn something from his life or his studies? Or has my sub-conscious simply bowled me a wide? What on earth, if anything, am I telling myself? Answers on a postcard, please …

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Rhythm and blues

How we need rhythm in our lives. For the last four months, John Simmons and I have been batting back and forth chapters of Room 121 on an almost daily basis (a form of exchange, and therefore of book, it occurs to me, that wouldn’t have been possible before the advent of email). Now, apart from pulling together final details like blurb, biographies, photos and the all-important endorsements, it’s over and I feel as flat as the proverbial pancake – appropriately enough, I suppose, since next Tuesday is Shrove Tuesday.
  As it happens, this week has been quiet on the work front, and although I have a list of things to do that’s longer than my arm, I’ve felt tired and listless and have found it difficult to focus. End-of-winter blues, I started telling myself until the penny dropped: I’d got used to a particular rhythm and now it was gone. But it’s not just the routine the rhythm provides that I miss, it’s the energy I derive from it. It’s as if there was a little drummer somewhere inside me, whose beat was pulling me along, helping me to march purposefully down the road. Now he’s not there and all the steam has gone out of my legs (I suppose if you think of legs as pistons that just about works as a metaphor).
  He’s not the only rhythm-maker now absent from my life. The newly be-Oscared Aaron Sorkin, writer of The Social Network, has been transporting Sarah and me almost nightly for well over a year with his magisterial West Wing. We watched the final episode a couple of weeks ago with the feeling that we might have been emigrants bidding farewell to a family we’d never see again. The triumphs and tribulations of President Jed Bartlett and his White House inner circle have lodged so deeply in our connubial consciousness that we sometimes found ourselves discussing their dilemmas over dinner as if they were old friends – which, in a way, they became.
  These big, beautifully crafted American TV drama series raise storytelling to a new level and I have no doubt we’re the richer for them. Not even Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo were able to exploit their plots or develop their characters on such a scale. These shows answer to our deep thirst for stories, and they serve them up with a long pulse that corresponds more closely to that of our own lives than any other form of narrative except perhaps soap operas.
  That said, I’m also now very close to the end of another long cycle, Michelle Paver’s spellbinding sextet of children’s novels The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. Set in the northern forests of stone-age Europe, these tell of fourteen year-old Torak, his four-footed companion, Wolf, and their battle with the evil Mages who threaten to blight the natural world and the harmony with which the different clans of forest-dwellers inhabit it. As well as spinning an extraordinarily gripping tale, she evokes a lost landscape and way of life with such apparent authenticity that it fills me with yearning and I feel as if the connection with my hunter-gatherer ancestors might have been forged only yesterday, rather than millennia ago. And when Torak and Wolf triumph, as they surely will, possibly on the train on the way to Wales to see my granddaughter tomorrow, another cycle will have come to an end.
  But spring is on the way and renewal with it. New cycles will take hold of me. New stories beckon. I'm ready for them.