Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A Few Kind Words have moved ...

. . . to new and more salubrious quarters. You'll find new posts plus all the old ones with just one click - HERE!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Witness

When I came back to Scotland in 1990 after living in London for 20 years it seemed like a different country to the one I had left. The spirit of John Knox had finally been banished from the streets of Edinburgh. You could eat well (well, a lot better), get a drink on a Sunday, have a cup of coffee outside on the pavement on a sunny day. There were good clubs and gigs, plays and shows. The capital seemed to have acquired a cultural life outside of August and optimism was the order of the day.
Writing was undergoing a tremendous renaissance with the contemporary Scottish novel being hailed far and wide. The music scene was transformed too. In my own particular area of interest, traditional music, the change was nothing less than radical. I had left to the strains of Jimmy Shand and his ilk, the old guys, with their slick, strict tempo country dance band sound. Now the young guys (and girls) had thrillingly claimed it for themselves, doing dangerous things with their fingering and bowing and breathing, nonchalantly and expertly playing fast and loose with melody and tempo, making music worth listening, as well as dancing, to.
And then, of course, there was devolution. Donald Dewar was a much admired figure across the political spectrum, although his flagship legislation for the new Scottish parliament was causing some consternation outside the Central Belt.
Having been brought up among landowners I had never given a moment’s thought to the fact that, thanks to the Napoleonic code and other European inheritance laws, Scotland is the last place in Europe where it's still possible to buy a very large piece of wilderness, sit in the middle of it, and effectively keep out the rest of the world. But now the issue of landownership was squarely on the political agenda - not least because it was one area where the new parliament, with its limited powers, could make a significant change - and I found the whole issue fascinating.
Put simply, on the one hand, very large tracts of the Scottish countryside were in the possession of a very small number of private landowners; on the other hand those landowners with their deep pockets managed and maintained this largely unproductive wilderness as an amenity for everyone else. It was a polarising debate, and at the time I returned there were those on both sides who believed it heralded the revolution.
In the end the Land Reform Scotland Act did little more than enshrine the ages-old Scottish precept that as long as you were sensible and respectful you could go where you wanted; though it did raise people's awareness of the fact that in Scotland, ownership in law was philosophically underpinned by the notion of stewardship or custodianship, and it paved the way for some high-profile community buyouts, notably on the islands of Gigha and Eigg, and on the Assynt peninsula.
It also, however, gave me the background for the novel I wanted to write; my response in part to the whole experience of being back in Scotland again, in part to the Balkans conflict and the horrors of Sarajevo and Srebrenica (I think of Homs and Idlib today and despair). It enabled me to concoct an independent Scotland of the near future in which land had been nationalised and in which, after years of mismanagement, the disgruntled Highlanders had risen up, alongside their dispossessed former lairds, against the government - a civil war arising out of a kind of reverse Highland clearances.
The book was published in 2007. It did reasonably well, was shortlisted for several prizes, and despite being pitched by the publishers at the top end of the young adult market, was read by just as many adults as teenagers. At the time of writing it I never imagined that five years later the SNP would be in charge, much less that independence would be heading the agenda. Nor did I imagine that my publishers would have ditched me and that I would be free to republish the book myself for use on a then only-dimly-imagined electronic reading device.
    But that is what has come to pass and now The Witness is available on Kindle at a very modest £1.95. If you haven't already read it, it will give you an edge-of-the-seat glimpse into a possible, though I sincerely hope not probable, future Scotland. If you have already read and enjoyed it, you can help me bring it to the attention of other readers by adding it to your Kindle library for less than the price of a pair of Ratner's earrings. Well worth it I'd say ... but then I would, wouldn't I. I hope you'll agree. You can find out by clicking here!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Chinese fairies

My mother is in reminiscent mode. She’s got to the age, nearly 84 as she reminds me constantly, where that old cliché about having nothing left but the memories is starting to manifest itself.
In her day she was wildly active, forever starting this, chairing that, raising money for the other. Now she’s largely sedentary. The once constant flow of correspondence, in her large expressive hand, with much underlining and postscripts that curled round the corners and along the edges of the pages, has dried up. She doesn’t like using the telephone and is no longer interested in being sociable. It’s as if she has quietly and gently closed the door on the world – which is not to say she’s planning to leave it. She’s quite happy, she says, and thoroughly enjoying herself ‘being lazy’; as well she might now that she’s ensconced in her own fully serviced flat in the very nice care home five minutes walk from my house.
She spends her day reading voraciously, watching television and, when she has a visitor – which most days is me, reminiscing. She returns frequently to the Clyde blitz and the bomb that brought down her bedroom ceiling on the night that she was providentially sleeping in another part of the house with her mother. The bomb, jettisoned by a plane returning after the main raid on Greenock, the other side of the river, fell in the garden at the east end of the house. But the blast, in the peculiar way of such things, travelled round the narrow space between the rear of the house and the grassy bank behind it, and demolished the west wing, leaving the east wing unscathed.
It must have made the war personal for her in a way that nothing else could have done. She’s never said ‘I beat the Germans’, but I can’t help feeling that that’s there in the undertow of the story. It’s definitely a source of pride that she survived. Often she tells the story the same way, but last time she added an intriguing detail. ‘It didn’t break any of my possessions,’ she said, ‘except some Chinese fairies.’
Chinese fairies? I was in a rush and didn’t follow it up at the time, but I will. In the 1930s her father served in China, commanding a flotilla of Royal Naval gunboats charged with keeping the West River free of pirates. She travelled out there with her mother, aged seven or eight. That journey must have been another hugely formative experience, and although I already know some of the stories, a little digging will undoubtedly throw up more.
But the story that’s really caught my fancy recently is the one about their summer holidays in Scotland with her maternal grandparents, who used to take a shooting lodge near Callander, in the Trossachs. My mother and her parents were then in naval quarters in the south of England. Her grandfather, a City grandee, lived in Buckinghamshire. To ship the whole family, plus domestic entourage, north, he simply hired a private railway carriage. They embarked at Taplow station and sometime the following day disembarked at Callander, having presumably been towed up to London, unhitched at some terminus, then re-hitched to another train heading north – all without the inconvenience of once having to step down from their carriage. My mother shared a sleeping compartment with the cook and a chambermaid, and loved it.
When I’m talking to groups about stories, I invite them to imagine for a moment that they are books, in which each successive page and chapter contains the stories of the incidents and experiences, the encounters and relationships, that make up their lives. I then ask them to picture a giant coming along, wrenching the book from their hands, and rubbing out those stories, starting at the first and working through to the last page, when the book is empty. What then are they left with? I ask.
As I watch my mother growing older I realise more and more how our identity is nothing but the stories we tell ourselves. Without them we are really no longer human.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Anecdotally speaking

There’s a small agency in Melbourne, Australia called Anecdote. They use stories and storytelling to help businesses change and adapt, develop their strategies and undertake other manoeuvres that call for some plumbing of the corporate psyche.
I met one of the Anecdote team in Edinburgh just before Christmas. Kevin Bishop is a former RBS executive who went to live on the other side of the world so that he could follow his new-found vocation as a business storyteller. An energetic and engaging chap in a smart suit, he had none of that whiff of the smoke-filled tepee that one sometimes associates with storytellers. Quite the opposite, everything about him suggested that Anecdote does serious work with some big global players, thank you very much.
We talked about what stories mean to people in business, and I was pleased to find that we shared a distaste for the recent rash of business ‘fables’ like Squirrel Inc and Who Moved My Cheese, which seem lumbering and contrived and largely devoid of the most basic ingredient of storytelling – the ability to create in the reader an emotional connection with the characters. Frankly, I don’t care enough about what happens to the wretched squirrels or mice to want to read beyond chapter one. These stories have been created in service of a message and, as such, are little more than propaganda. They have all the imaginative flair and pathos of a Pyongyang news bulletin.
Anecdote’s skill is in using real stories, often gathered from the dustiest, most neglected corners of businesses: priceless nuggets of organisational knowledge held in the head of one old security man who is about to retire, when they will be lost forever; a simple story of human behaviour recounted by a lowly office worker that changes management attitudes; personal stories that help colleagues understand one another better and bring teams together, and so on. These are stories – I know from my own work with clients and the work we do through Dark Angels – that have the power to change things because they have true human resonance.
Real stories like these are things to be shared, and the more they are shared the more powerful they become. Anecdote publish an e-newsletter in which they generously share much of what they come across in the course of their business. There’s a fascinating item in the current issue about a study by a team of neuroscientists at Princeton University who have discovered that when you put someone through an fMRI scanner as they are telling a personal story, then play back the story to a series of subjects as they in turn go through the scanner, the same bits of the brain light up – in other words, the storyteller’s and listeners’ brains fall into sync. Further, while some listeners brain patterns show a short lag as they catch up with the story, others’ actually precede those of the teller because they are predicting where the story will go. And finally, those listeners who do most predicting also score highest in the subsequent comprehension test.
Science, it seems, is starting to demonstrate what we know intuitively – that stories allow us not only to connect powerfully and deeply with one another, but also to absorb information very efficiently. If this helps businesses to overcome their fear of something they tend to see as alarming and unmeasurable, and move away from a slavish devotion to so-called objectivity, then three cheers for science.