Friday, 29 April 2011

Curiouser and curiouser

A couple of times most weeks I take the train to Edinburgh. For several miles the line follows the Fife coast. There’s a long view south under huge skies across the Forth Estuary to Edinburgh and its acropolis, the Pentland Hills looming behind. In places the track runs very close to the shoreline and at low water there are colonies of seaweedy boulders, great expanses of mudflat, and flocks of wading birds to be seen. Yesterday morning was one of brilliant sunshine and air of a particularly limpid clarity, the water ruffled by a light breeze. At one point, as we rounded a headland, there, crossing a small bay was a solitary kayak, its paddler oblivious to the fact that twenty yards behind him, head and neck raised clear of the water, followed an inquisitive seal.
When we are curious we feel alive. Witnessing such a thing on a journey to work made me feel that a good day lay ahead, and indeed it did. First there was a meeting with Paul Pinson, theatre director turned executive coach, who partnered me on the Indian adventure last year. Paul gave me invaluable feedback on a story-telling workshop I’m preparing. Keep spelling out the business benefits and giving real life examples, he urged me. You may have all this knowledge, but to your audience it’s a new concept and they need to be reassured that what you’re telling them actually works. There’s no end to what we can learn, nor the satisfaction in it, I thought as I left.
Next came an Edinburgh International Book Festival board meeting: two hours of solid concentration, one tricky decision, and the thrill of hearing details of this year’s programme – a banquet of contemporary fiction and current thinking on everything from science and the environment to the Arab Spring and the growing power of China. Book festivals are a modern cultural phenomenon and more appear practically every week. With 750 events and more than 200,000 visitors over 17 days, we claim ours to be the world’s largest. But where does this desire to hear authors talking come from? I believe it’s about curiosity and learning again. Book festivals are really festivals of thinking and we hunger for the imaginative connections we can make, the sense of belonging we can experience, by hearing new, interesting and challenging ideas in the company of others.
From Edinburgh I travelled to St Andrews, back along the Fife coast under a still unblemished sky, with another colleague. Robert Fletcher, former chairman of Saatchi’s New York, is a genius at helping brands of all kinds to communicate why the world would be a poorer place without them. In this instance the brand is St Andrews University, which in two years’ time will be 600 years old and needs to find a compelling way to raise many millions of pounds over the coming years in the seemingly paradoxical pursuit of remaining small. Even ancient seats of learning have lessons to learn, in this case that the institutional voice will not always serve it best. 
     Nowhere is human curiosity more visibly enshrined than in a place such as St Andrews. It’s not just what makes us feel alive. It’s what keeps us moving forward.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Standing under

I suppose Easter weekend is as appropriate a moment as any to write about empathy. In the Christian calendar, at least, it represents the high point of suffering; and empathy translates literally from the Greek as ‘suffering in’ (as opposed to sympathy, ‘suffering with’).
But that’s not what has prompted me. The trigger, in fact, is a TED talk I was directed to this week, in which American sociologist Sam Richards illustrates empathy by taking his audience step-by-step through the process of identifying with an Iraqi insurgent. He does it by first unfolding an imaginary scenario in which a hugely powerful China, dependent on American coal, sends an army of occupation into a conflict-ridden United States; then drawing the parallel with the situation in Iraq and inviting the audience to imagine how an ordinary Iraqi might feel about the Americans – which is not, as he crucially points out, the same as agreeing with that person. In a post-9/11 US, it’s a brave but effective way of making his point.
Richards describes sociology as ‘the study of the way humans are shaped by things they can’t see’; and empathy, he tells his students, is everything because to study those invisible forces you must be able to understand other people. The OED defines empathy as ‘the power of projecting one’s personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation’. The literal meaning of the word ‘understand’ is to ‘stand under’, and at one point in his talk Richards takes a pace to one side, then turns through 180 degrees to face the way he has been facing previously, thus miming the act of stepping into someone else’s shoes, or ‘standing under’ them. I was amused because I make the same movement when talking to people about the importance of empathy in writing. It must be the default gesture for empathy, and I love the implication that we intuitively under-stand that selfsame word’s intrinsic meaning.
Empathy was constantly on my mind when John Simmons and I were writing Room 121, earlier on in the year. Not only is it one of the defining themes of the book, but in the writing John and I were almost daily inviting empathy, one with the other, as we swapped stories. Even so, the impulse to tell an audience what you want to say rather than what they want to hear can be a powerful one. I’ve been caught out in the past when talking to people whose grasp of stories and language has been more literal than I had appreciated, and seen the blank looks resulting from my assumption that they will ‘get’ the emotional torque of a phrase or story without my having to explain it.
Empathy, it seems to me, is the principal means of bridging the gap between our human differences. It’s not possible without the capacity to imagine. But it also requires an effort of will, a wish to connect, even if not necessarily to concur – and when that is absent, all manner of troubles ensue. Imagine what might have happened had Sam Richards given his talk to an audience of Romans, inviting them to empathise with a rabble-rousing Judaean mystic.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Chinook secrets

In June 1994 an RAF Chinook helicopter, travelling from Northern Ireland, flew into a hillside on the Mull of Kintyre, killing everyone on board. Alongside the four crew, the 25 passengers included almost all the UK's most senior Northern Ireland intelligence experts. It was a security catastrophe, and because the crash happened in dense fog there were no witnesses.
The following year an RAF board of enquiry, led by two air-marshals, concluded that it was the result of pilot error. They found the two young flight lieutenants, Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook, aged 28 and 30, guilty of gross negligence in flying too fast and too low for the prevailing conditions.
But the pilots' families and many others, including a number of prominent figures, disagreed. In the years that followed there were several inquiries and reports, all of which challenged the original conclusion or left the question of blame open.
In 2001, my father chaired the last of these inquiries. It was one of the final jobs he undertook as a retired Law Lord. He found that the air marshalls had effectively inferred negligence from the absence of any evidence to the contrary, a decision that would have been impermissible in any civil court; and that they were therefore wrong to have reached the conclusion they did.
As Malcolm Rifkind, Defence Secretary at the time of the original inquiry, wrote in the Sunday Herald, shortly after my father’s report was published: “The immediate reaction of the government was made by armed forces minister Adam Ingram within hours of the publication of the report. He could hardly have had time to read it, but he appeared to dismiss it as containing nothing new. The implication was that the government would not budge.”
My father was quietly furious, not because this was yet another report the government was going to kick into the long grass, but because he felt the case against the young pilots was far from proven and feared that a genuine injustice was being perpetrated against them. Sad then that he didn’t live to hear the news, just this week, that the BBC have uncovered an RAF internal report, written two years before the accident, which seriously questioned the airworthiness of the Chinook on a number of counts. The report had never been seen by any of the previous inquiries; the clear implication being that it had been buried by the MoD.
Another review is currently under way and now, at last, it seems that the pilots’ names may be cleared and the families might see the justice their sons deserve. All of which leaves one gasping at the cynicism of an organisation that would rather blame two young men than admit to its own failings. Though perhaps that’s a na├»ve view. Even in these more transparent times, the MoD carries with it a hefty legacy of secrecy.
On the other hand, maybe the MoD is not so different from the many other organisations where that kind of cynicism and secrecy and lack of proper regard for individuals is a fact of daily life. On the Dark Angels course at Merton we talked a lot about the parlous state of dysfunction that so many organisations seem to have reached these days. Mark Watkins, who lives and works in Denmark, put it particularly well with this description of a kind of reverse alchemy: “Imagine you’re on your way to your first day in a new job. You’re full of enthusiasm, purpose, the wish to contribute, to make a difference, to be useful. How hard does your organisation then have to work to turn that gold into lead, that energy into apathy?” The answer is either quite hard, or not very hard at all. Both are sadly true.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Summing up

I heard yesterday that my novel The Witness has finally earned out its advance, nearly four years after publication. Jenny Brown, my agent, tells me that a cheque for about £20 is on its way to my account. Champagne all round, then.
  The economics of writing novels have never really made much sense for me. I started this book, my fourth, in around 2001, as an adult novel, and finished the first draft about three years later. It did the rounds of a dozen major fiction publishers and was turned down by all of them, though one or two said they thought it might work as a young adult title. So we took it to Macmillan Children’s Books who agreed to give it serious consideration if I was prepared to re-write it. I eventually did, once I’d realised that almost the only thing I needed do was re-cast the main character, making him an 18- rather than 45-year-old; everything else stayed much the same. It took me six months and I was rewarded by a contract with Young Picador and a £5000 advance.
  The Witness was eventually published in August 2007, about a month after my father died. I think he always found it difficult to engage with this part of my life; he hardly read any fiction and the literary world was one he seemed to find hard to relate to. Yet the very last words he said to me, a couple of days before he died, were: “good luck with the book, old boy.” I would have liked him to see it in print; better still read it since there was much in it – the Highland landscape and way of life, issues of land-ownership, traditional music – that he would have enjoyed. But he’d suffered a severe stroke two years previously and wouldn’t have been able to read it, even if he had lived.
Today, it’s nearly ten years since I started work on the book. That means its earnings average £500 per annum. Its successor, The Reckoning, fares better because I wrote it much more quickly. I started work on it in January 2008 and it was published in November 2009. I also received a bigger advance, £6000. So The Reckoning has averaged slightly under £2000 a year so far, though that figure will decrease because the book isn’t yet close to earning out its advance. In total, including lending royalties but excluding appearance fees, writing fiction has brought me around £30,000 since my first novel was published in 1990. Call that £1500 per annum. Hah!
Yesterday – by coincidence, or perhaps not – just before I heard the extravagant news from Jenny, I had started work again on the last in this series of three young adult novels. I have been stalled at page 200 for over a year, mainly, though not wholly, through pressure of work. The other reason for the hiatus is that despite The Witness and The Reckoning being shortlisted for successive Royal Mail Scottish Children’s Book of the Year Awards, despite my going into something close to fifty secondary schools over a two-year period and promoting the books as hard as I possibly could, Macmillan deemed me not to be selling enough and sacked me in summer 2009. So there’s no contract and no advance for The Artefact, as it’s provisionally titled.
Why on earth am I bothering, then? It will be another six months’ hard graft, squeezed in between everything else, with the very real possibility of the book never seeing the light of day. Should a publisher materialise the advance will be nugatory, such is the current state of publishing, and I will almost certainly have to commit to a follow-up. Why bother? I’ve been asking myself this question for some months. I continued to ask it when we were at Merton last week, where I finally came to the simple conclusion that the story demands to be finished. It’s a living, growing thing, and to let it wither on the vine would be tantamount to abortion. I feel morally obliged to it, such is the power and energy of story.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Oxford blue

I’m in Oxford now, at Merton College. Our Dark Angels students are working on their projects and I'm finding a brief moment of quiet in my room, remembering the first time I ever came here.
  I was twelve years old. My mother had driven me down from Scotland to sit the scholarship exam for nearby Radley College; an heroic twelve-hour journey in a Morris Minor Traveller. We stayed, in what felt like tremendous splendour, at The Mitre, an ancient half-timbered pub on the High Street. We went to look at Christ Church, where my father had been a student, and wandered around the vast-seeming Tom Quad. I wanted to visit Carfax and Turl, streets my father had mentioned, simply because they had such strange names; I don’t remember if we did. I do remember feeling highly embarrassed, but also secretly rather proud, of being made to wear a kilt for the interviews. There were very few Scots at Radley in those days, and I think it caused a stir.
  I didn’t get the scholarship, but a kind of consolation prize in the form of an exhibition (to this day I don’t know why they’re so called), which meant I had my name in italics, rather than bold, in the school list. It was worth £80 a year. It also meant that Oxford featured prominently in my life for the next five years. With leave from our housemasters, we cycled the five miles at weekends and loitered, ogled girls, spent our pocket money on records and improbable clothes (it was the mid-60s), occasionally went punting and inevitably, as we got older, pubbing – which involved dodging the dons, as Radley also styled its teaching staff. My home was deep in the Scottish countryside, and Oxford became much of what I knew about the grown-up world throughout my teenage years.
  But I didn’t fulfil the promise of the exhibition. I was pushed early into the classics department to study Latin, Greek and Ancient History, a tiny hothouse for which I was neither temperamentally nor intellectually suited. Well into adult life I continued to have nightmares about sitting the Greek unseen exam without having memorised enough vocabulary. By the time I sat Oxford entrance, my academic career had followed a steady downwards trajectory for three years and I was thoroughly demoralised. Christ Church turned me down for PPE and I ended up in Aberdeen reading Law.
  I brushed it off at the time, one does at the age of eighteen, and went on to enjoy greatly my time at another ancient university, the other end of the country. I gave the whole thing very little thought until much, much later, only a few years before my father’s death. He had been at a dinner for eminent Christ Church alumni where someone had said to him: ‘not surprising your son didn’t get in in 1967, the college had become very left-wing and the fact that you had been there would have gone against him.’
  I was touched that he passed this on; it felt like a kind of apology. But it also reminded me that somewhere inside, the rejection had always slightly rankled. Not because I felt that I should have got in, but because I knew perfectly well that I hadn’t been up to it, the entrance exam the culmination of a three-year failure of education. After taking two A-levels, aged fifteen, and scoring two e-grades, I’d begged to be allowed to change from classics to modern languages. My housemaster's response was to note in my report that I needed to grow up. I was trying.
  And yet, these things are seldom black and white. Those three years of intensive Latin and Greek vastly increased my grasp of the English language and made me the writer I am. Without them I might easily not be at Merton now. On the other hand, my two Dark Angels colleagues, John and Stuart, both studied at Oxford. Sitting here now in a medieval building, at a desk in an undergraduate room, off a spiral stone staircase so narrow I almost have to turn my shoulders to climb it, I won't pretend I don't envy them.