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.