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...