Thursday, 9 December 2010

Rebel talk

Intervention. Usually, it’s what takes place between people arguing or fighting. We intervene to stop things getting worse. Perhaps, then, it’s not so odd that it’s a word used so frequently by health professionals. A medical intervention. A surgical intervention. A psychiatric intervention.

Personally, I think it’s a hard word. It makes me imagine someone coming at me with some kind of instrument. It conveys none of the sense of curing or caring, healing or making better that is its presumed aim. And it’s on my mind because my wife Sarah and I had a conversation about it at dinner last night.

Sarah’s a counsellor and some of her work is in the NHS where she’s available to counsel hard-pressed staff, from consultant physicians through to hospital porters. We were talking about how she approaches a first session with a new client and the discussion she has with them about what they might need. ‘I tell them that there are a variety of interventions available,’ she said.

I questioned the use of the word, saying that I felt it was depersonalising. We explored alternatives. ‘There are a variety of approaches we could take,’ was better, we agreed. But the best was, ‘there are lots of different ways we can help you.’ Rather than the abstract ‘intervention’, this phrase contained the three very real and human words ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘help’.

The trouble is, like legionnaire’s disease, ‘interventions’ and all the other abstractions of health-speak breed in the air conditioning of hospitals, and in their own way I believe they’re just as lethal. For anyone who is sick, one of the most important things surely is to be treated humanely, to be made to feel cared for, and language that fails to do that is no part of the healing process, quite the reverse in fact. But in a monolithic organisation like the NHS, making the conscious decision not to adopt that way of speaking takes courage. It’s a small but important act of rebellion.

Talking of which, there may be rebellion in the air on the publishing front. First, a question: what does Room 121 mean to you? Does it intrigue you, perhaps make you wonder what goes on there, perhaps remind you of Orwell’s Room 101?

It’s the title of the new book that John Simmons and I are writing, on the subject of writing for business. It’s sub-titled ‘a masterclass in business communication’. Our contention is that to communicate well you have to write as one human being to another, one-to-one, in fact. In writing the book we’re creating a space, a room if you like, where people can come to learn. And the form in which we’re writing it, as a series of 52 weekly exchanges, directly reflects the title.

But our publishers’ head office is in Singapore and we’re currently ‘in discussions’ with them because they tell us that ‘readers in Singapore don’t get the title’. Perhaps they’d get a title like How to write better for business, but there are umpteen books out there making that claim. Room 121 is aimed at people who already write for business and regard it as a craft they’d like to improve. These are people who’ve got beyond advice such as ‘use active verbs and personal pronouns’. They want to be intrigued, entertained and enlightened.

We’d love to know how you respond to this title. Like it? Hate it? Find it confusing? If you have a moment to leave a comment here, or email me direct, it would be a great help to us. (If you've already responded to John, don't worry - and thank you!)

And finally, I may not be able to post next week. I'll be in Marrakech, charging the solar batteries in readiness for the next round of snowmageddon.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Skating backwards

I don’t remember the miseries of the winter of 1963 (no running water in the house for several weeks, among other things, I’m told). I just remember the fun. I was fourteen, home from boarding school, and Perthshire was a winter playground.

There was endless tobogganing. The best, at Ochtertyre, just outside Crieff, was down a long, very steep field and straight out across several hundred yards of frozen loch, dodging skaters, a motorbike (how it stayed upright I have no idea) and even a couple of cars. It was surely the dream toboggan run, the best thing outside the Cresta.

Then there was ice hockey. Ten minutes from home, a neighbour had flooded a field to make a flight pond. Set in a hollow between two hills, it was shallow and froze very quickly. That winter it was a couple of acres of pure glass. We played with walking sticks and a shoe polish tin filled with sand to give it weight. God, could we skate – flat out across the ice, whacking the puck and occasionally each other, twisting and turning on sixpences until the surface was scored and powdered by our blades and our cheeks were crimson and burning in the cold. Late in the afternoon the sky would turn pink and fill with skeins of geese heading down to the River Earn to roost. I remember feelings of extreme exhilaration at the sport and the speed of it, combined with something approaching ecstasy at the beauty of our surroundings.

But the thing I remember best, and last week’s Imagination Club outing to that great empty ballroom put me in mind of it, was skating backwards. I got very good at it, skating forward as fast as I could, then pivoting on one toe to whip round into the backward movement with almost no loss of speed. Skating backwards involved making a snakelike movement of the hips as you transferred your weight from one ankle to the other, and more even than forward skating it seemed to depend on a good rhythm. If you got it right it was almost like flying (if you didn’t you were liable to trip and crack your skull).

So much of what we do works best when we get into a rhythm. I’m just back from the pub where for, obvious reasons, it was a quiet night. But there were three other musicians there, all good players, and after half an hour or so of warming up we spontaneously hit a groove. It was exciting, like skating backwards, and we kept it going for a good long time. We could tell that it was infectious from the way the audience reacted, nodding, smiling, tapping feet.

Another rhythm has me in its grasp at the moment, too. John Simmons and I have been commissioned to write a book about business writing and language which takes the form of a conversation between our two blogs. With meetings cancelled because of the weather this week, we’ve hit a groove in our exchanges, batting back and forth new blog posts almost every day. Again there’s something exhilarating about it, and I’m sure we’re both writing well at the moment.

It’s easy to forget that from the moment we first hear the thud-thud of our mother’s heartbeats, we are creatures of rhythm. Last week’s dancing reminded me of it, and so, oddly enough, has being in the grip of the coldest November on record.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Gone dancing

Last Tuesday I went along on an Imagination Club outing. The club was set up three years ago by Barclay Price, director of Arts & Business Scotland, on the Heineken principle: that it would refresh the parts – well, one part in particular – that everyday organisational life doesn’t reach.

Three or four times a year, a small group of us meet for a few hours to do something that none of us have ever done before, and stretch our imaginations in the process. ‘We’ are mainly people from the higher echelons of the Scottish academic, arts, cultural and enterprise world, plus me as a kind of official recorder.

So far we’ve made short films at the BBC, spoons in the jewellery department of Edinburgh College of Art, and I can’t remember exactly what in an imaginary sandpit in Barclay’s office; written poems in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, visited Jupiter Artland, a private sculpture park outside Edinburgh, played the World Game in a converted boathouse on the Fife coast, brainstormed new uses for touch-screen technology in a high-tech lab at Edinburgh University’s Informatics Department, and last Tuesday – danced.

The majority of us, I suspect, were dreading it – quite needlessly as it transpired. It was fantastic. We had an empty ballroom to ourselves, and an inspirational leader in the person of dancer and choreographer, Christine Devaney. Within half an hour she had us unashamedly gliding and swooping, springing and leaping around the huge space, lost in what we could make our own bodies do, entranced by the feeling of physical freedom. Within an hour we were in groups, rolling and tumbling and writhing in coils. And for the finale, all inhibition by now cast to the winds, we choreographed our own short dance pieces.

Total absorption, self-forgetting, is the thing that has characterised the best of these outings. This was certainly true of Tuesday, though it was accompanied by a strong sense of physical awareness, as if we were experiencing the world almost entirely through our bodies, and the relationship of our bodies to the others around us. It was, I realised afterwards, an almost unconscious form of communication; more than that, a form of communion, and a more powerful one than anything we normally achieve with words, outside perhaps poetry.

Most of us these days lead less physical lives than at any time in human history. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson’s famous remark about academics: our bodies have become a form of transport for our heads, they’re how we get our brains to meetings. This can’t be a good thing. Dancing and movement reminds us of something important about ourselves, something without which we’re incomplete.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Temples of Mammon

Thirty-nine years plus a few weeks ago I started my first job. Incredible though it now seems, it was in the City.

I had graduated with a law degree from Aberdeen University but wanted neither to practice law nor to stay in Scotland. What I really wanted to do was write stories and make records, but my father was an advocate, my stepfather a banker, and in those days one toed the line. So I signed up with one of the big London Scottish firms of accountants. ‘My boy,’ I seem to remember someone saying, ‘with a law degree and a CA under your belt, the world’s your oyster.’

I certainly remember my first day. The offices were on King William St, on the north side of London Bridge. As I walked anxiously down from Monument tube station, a great grey tide surged towards me across the bridge, shoes shined, brollies furled and bowlers bobbing up and down amid the throng. It was an unnerving sight.

I lasted six months. Despite, on an audit in Watford, writing the report I was asked to produce in the style of a Mickey Spillane thriller, I’m proud to say that I left voluntarily. By the following spring I was working in a West End bookshop and six months after that, en route to South America for a year on the road. My first attempt at grown-up life had failed magnificently.

Yesterday I found myself back among the temples of Mammon, a couple of bridges upstream from where I’d begun, running a day’s training for one of the country’s larger accountancy firms. There was an odd and brief moment of déjà vu as I approached their offices, but it didn’t last long. It seems almost superfluous to note that so much had changed. The art in the lobby. The pink shirts and short skirts and no ties. The information screens and bottled water and bowls of fruit.

It would be easy to say that the one thing that hadn’t changed was the language, but it wouldn’t be true. The world of taxation, accountancy and financial advice, let alone City regulation, is an infinitely more complex one than it was nearly four decades ago – and the language reflects it. Whereas many things have changed for the better, it’s probably fair to say that the language has changed for the worse. But attitudes also are changing and there’s now an awareness that it doesn’t have to be that way, which of course is why I was there.

That seems to me like a straw worth clinging to. Even down in the oily, throbbing maintenance area of the economic engine room there are people keen to make space for a few kind words.

Friday, 12 November 2010

War Horse

I seldom watch breakfast TV but I was staying in a hotel on Wednesday night, so yesterday morning I did. One of the guests was the former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo. The stage production of his story War Horse is about to go to Broadway, while Steven Spielbeg has also just finished filming it.

Animals have always been a challenge in the theatre. I remember going to see the original version of Equus at the Old Vic in the early ‘70s. Then they used large wicker horses’ heads worn by brown-clad actors. It worked. Equus was a profoundly disturbing theatrical experience.

Things have moved on. As we saw yesterday in a live studio demonstration, the horses in War Horse are whole, life-sized animals. The bodies and heads are wire armatures covered in gauze, the legs hinged sections of wood. Each horse has three attendant grooms in brown boots, breeches and waistcoat, who are really the puppeteers. They stand beside the animal as if tending to it and reach up, down or inside to manipulate the different parts of it with their hands.

So lifelike are the animal’s movements, so distinct its personality, that even in the brief couple of minutes the demonstration lasted I quickly forgot about the puppeteers. It was as if they had become transparent. It was a stunning example of how easily we can be persuaded to see only what someone wants us to see.

The three actor-puppeteers, we were told, were known respectively as Head, Heart and Hind; and this, I think, is the reason that this trompe l’oeil worked so beautifully. Working together, each immersed in his or her role, they conjured a living, breathing, feeling animal so real we could almost see its breath.

Head, heart and hind. I couldn’t help thinking that it’s sometimes helpful to think of organisations in anthropomorphic terms too. It reminds us that as well as a head, most organisations also have a heart, although they don’t always know where to find it. And they certainly have a hind. It’s what a lot of them spend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to cover. But the main problem is that unlike in War Horse, their puppeteers so seldom seem to be working from the same script.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Truth in Assynt

I’m reading a beautiful book. At The Loch of the Green Corrie is by Scottish novelist, poet and mountaineer, Andrew Greig.

Part memoir, part meditation on fishing and wilderness, part tribute to another Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig, it speaks to me particularly because it’s set in Assynt, a wild corner of the northwest Highlands where I’ve spent time making music during each of the last two summers, and where the Lewisian Gneiss that thrusts skywards through grass and heather is one of the oldest geological formations on earth. (Scotland drifted around a lot, for a very long time, before finally settling where it is now.)

At one point Andrew Greig describes a childhood game he and his brother used to play. They called it ‘Copsbrook’ after a third, imaginary player. He says this: ‘I have never known a game as demanding, as absorbing, as pure and difficult as playing Copsbrook – unless it is trying to write a poem, a true poem, that has no visible constraints but bends around its inner necessity.’

I really love that: ‘… bends around its inner necessity.’ There’s the sense of shaping a rim to a wheel, endowing the core of a thing with the means of its own movement into the world. And I love it because true as it is of writing a poem, it’s also true of the whole business of communicating.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the value of constraints in the creative process. Here Andrew Greig describes the constraint-less constraint. This is where the essential truth of what you want to get at gives shape to what you have to say.

All of which implies an honesty, a seeking-after-truth, that might seem all too rare in the business world. And yet … I truly believe people are longing for it. They’re fed up with corporate platitudes and spin, with failure of nerve and the bland drivel that results, with disingenuity and vacuity.

I ran a workshop today for a very large technology business. The participants were senior people, educated, intelligent, articulate, experts in their own field. The feeling of longing to let what they had to say be bent around its inner necessity was almost palpable. I hope I encouraged them to reach for it.

It’s very simple really.

People like truth.

Thursday, 28 October 2010


My maternal grandfather, a retired admiral, could recite The Hunting Of The Snark in its entirety. As a young midshipman he had committed it to memory and there it had stuck for the remaining seventy-odd years of his life. I still remember as a child shrieking with terror and delight when, with a flourish, he would declaim the final line: ‘for the Snark was a Boojum, you see.’

He had, as we say, learnt it by heart. But why do we say that? Without going into the niceties of where memory actually resides, wouldn’t it seem more rational to say that he had learnt it by head?

In fact, the expression is supposed to derive from the ancient Greeks' belief that the heart was the seat of the intellect (and in a nice etymological parallel, the word record pursues the same train of thought, deriving from the Latin word cor for heart, thus to re-heart).

But the Greeks’ anatomical mistake serves as a useful reminder (in English we’ve got the anatomy right, you see) of something else – that most things worth remembering (not, in fact, re-member, as in reconstruct, but re-memor, Latin for mind) engage the heart as well as the head. Which, of course, is why so much that is written and spoken in the world of business is so instantly and permanently forgettable (Old English: for meaning far from or away from, plus get meaning get).

Except that sometimes it’s memorable for the wrong reasons. I heard a captain of industry speaking on television the other night about the success of his business. He expressed it this way: ‘our headcount has grown fifteen per cent in the last year.’

Our headcount? If all he recognises are heads, the chances are his company is not a great place to work, regardless of how successful it may be. Well, that’s just a perfectly normal piece of business jargon, you might say. Maybe so, but it’s still very revealing of the underlying thinking that persists in so many organisations, where – however much their leaders may assert the opposite – people are really thought of as ciphers, two-legged information processing machines.

Now if he’d said, ‘our heartcount has grown fifteen per cent in the last year’, it would have been a different matter altogether...

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Hold me

As in life, so in art - we do need constraints. In their own way they can even liberate, by relieving us of the pressure of having to encompass everything. That has certainly been my experience with the two 26 projects I’ve written about in the last year: 26:50 with International PEN and 26 Treasures with the V&A. In both cases we were permitted a very limited number of words for our response to a brief. These constraints actively encouraged creativity.

But there’s another side to this, and whenever I think of it I see myself aged 23 on a large horse careering across a field in Argentina. There are several things about that image that still make me shiver. One, I’m not a natural horseman, in fact horses frighten me and this one knew it. Two, the ground was covered with termite hills, three feet high, baked hard as concrete, and tapering to sharp points. Three, fields in Argentina are the size of English counties. Clinging to my steed’s neck, I thought the ride would never end.

Sometimes I get the same feeling when I have to write something, particularly to the sort of brief that ends with the client saying vaguely, ‘Oh, you know the kind of thing we want…’

I go home, sit down and look at my notes and there’s a horrible moment of paralysis. It’s not simply where do I start, but where on earth do I stop? How am I going to give this thing structure, form, some boundaries so that my thoughts don’t just slither about like amoebas and go wobbling over the edge of the earth?

So I look for whatever I can find that will help to contain the job and make it seem manageable. There’s always something. Maybe it’s the word-count. Maybe it’s the designer’s layout. Maybe it’s something the client said that I hadn’t picked up on. And if none of those are available, I work through my notes to start giving some kind of shape to what I do know. Perhaps there’s a chronological flow to the information or some kind of inherent organisational logic. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made or a story to be told.

Whatever it is, I’m looking for a constraint, something that encloses the work I have to do and makes me feel safe in the knowledge that it will end and that I can get there; that I’m not back in that seemingly boundary-less Argentine field. For constraints don’t merely liberate, they also protect one from the void – sometimes known as the blank page.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Out of the darkness

On Wednesday evening, as the Chilean miners emerged one by one from that hellish, six-hundred-metre-long metal tube, President Piñera, who seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of bons mots, declared that his country’s most precious resource was not copper or gold, but ‘we Chileans’.

It wasn’t a particularly original sentiment, although in the circumstances it did have a very particular resonance. But what made it interesting was his choice of the word ‘we’.

How often has one heard the leaders of businesses and other organisations trot out the old cliché, ‘our people are our most precious resource’?

Leaving aside the notion that people can be relegated to the status of mineral deposits, it’s the ‘our’ – that possessive pronoun – that gives the game away. It implies something paternalistic, a little condescending, and it always carries an underlying sense of disconnection, as if the speaker and the people they are referring to don’t belong to quite the same tribe.

But what the Chilean president did was to make the statement inclusive rather than exclusive. He placed himself in it, as one of the resources. ‘We Chileans’, he said. And in that moment, with that simple phrase, he summoned the image of a nation profoundly united.

As the miners were being winched to the surface, I was running a workshop for a large financial institution in Edinburgh. I invited the participants to use art materials to portray where they felt their organisation was at present, and their group within it.

One group created an underwater scene, complete with octopuses and sharks, shoals of small colourful fish, shipwrecks and a submarine. In the bottom left-hand corner was a blacked-out section, evidently a cave, from which peered several small pairs of eyes.

‘Who’s that in the cave?’ I asked.

‘Our leaders,’ came the answer. ‘They don’t like to come out much.’

The kind of leaders, no doubt, who would be quick to proclaim that their people are their greatest resource, while failing to acknowledge that they themselves are part of the same rich seam of human talent and energy and emotion.

While this was obviously a source of huge frustration, even anger, for my group, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of sympathy for those wretched leaders, failing to connect with the tribe they belong to, trapped in their cave by their own fear. For a moment, they even reminded me of the miners…

Friday, 8 October 2010

Why fiction?

‘Why should I read fiction?’ This was a question put by one of our students in Spain, a couple of weeks ago.

It’s a good question, and a reminder for me that not everyone has the passion for stories that I share with my fellow Dark Angels tutors, John Simmons and Stuart Delves. People read for many reasons. It may be to learn or to become better informed, it may simply be to be entertained, and it doesn’t have to involve fiction. Even if they do read novels, it may not necessarily be for any reason other than to be caught up in a ‘good yarn’.

Nevertheless, the question invited us to reflect on the fact that there are deeper reasons for reading fiction, good fiction at any rate; and since it was seriously put it deserved a serious answer. We (the tutors) hit our stride quickly: because it helps you to see the world around you in a new light; because it reveals universal truths; because it highlights moral dilemmas; because it reflects what it means to be human; because it stretches your heart and mind; because it challenges your view of things; because it helps you develop and grow – these, from memory, were just some of the reasons we gave.

But what have discussions about fiction got to do with business writing? one might ask. After all, isn’t business writing about facts and the hard realities of commercial or organisational life? Well, yes, but to whom do those facts and hard realities apply? People. People whose lives wherever they are, at home or at work, involve searching for universal truths, facing moral dilemmas, reflecting on what it means to be human, and so on. I rest my case …

Yesterday morning during a workshop I was asked a different question, yet one which seems go hand-in-hand with the first: ‘How do I become a better writer? Would reading help? And if so, what – newspapers, novels…?’

Yes, I answered, and yes again. Reading does help, in fact it’s probably the best way there is to become a better writer. Reading good writing, in the quality press, in serious non-fiction, and perhaps most of all in good literary fiction, is an invitation to anyone with the least curiosity to investigate how it’s done. Syntax, vocabulary, rhythm, texture, colour, energy, all can be learnt from what we read, and the more we read the sooner we stop learning and start breathing it in.

But most importantly of all, reading - for the story or the style - teaches us that the best writers, in any field whatsoever, are those that are deeply preoccupied with being human. For them, making the connection is everything.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Dawn chorus

Finca el Tornero de Abajo is the Spanish home of my childhood friend, novelist Robin Pilcher. A chestnut farm on a hillside in the Sierra de Aracena, 100 kms northwest of Seville, it’s a place of magical light, long views to distant ridges, tumbling wooded slopes and clear, clean air.

One wakes there to a morning chorus of dogs, roosters and a donkey, their voices echoing up from the valley as it floods with sunlight. And there’s another sound when the Dark Angels are gathered there, as we were last week: the sound of human voices raised together in celebration of existence.

Since our courses are about helping people to develop their metaphorical voices as writers, we work on the principle that it’s good for them to exercise their physical voices as well. So the day begins with five minutes of singing, usually a simple but beautiful early Christian chant: ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est (where there is kindness and love, there is god).

Religion has never had any place on our courses and never will, but that’s not to say it can’t offer us a rich seam of music and language. The melody of Ubi Caritas is easy to learn and the sentiment is one that most people find hard to disagree with, even though some might prefer to substitute the word ‘truth’ for ‘god’. Most importantly, though, the chant brings us together in a way that these days is all too rare.

Once upon a time the human voice was the predominant sound wherever one walked on earth, but today it’s drowned out by machines, and even when it’s not, half of us have our ears blocked by headphones. But at Finca el Tornero, our voices ring out in unison across the valley, the chant at once a confluence of sounds, a raising of consciousness and an invocation. It brings us together in a way that reminds us of both our individuality and our shared humanity. It’s good for our lungs and our heads, our hearts and our souls.

And when we come to the other exercises, that word ‘kindness’ is at the root of everything we teach, for kinder words are those that work harder to recognise our human kinship. Nothing is more vital to good writing or any other kind of communication, and yet it's so often missing in the world from which our students come, the world of business. Each year we watch them drink at the well of kindness like desert travellers at an oasis.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Cable news

When the business secretary Vince Cable yesterday announced his plans to shine ‘a harsh light into the murky world of corporate behaviour,’ the director general of the CBI, Richard Lambert, went on the attack, saying: ‘It’s odd that he thinks it sensible to use such emotional language.’

Cable probably hasn’t replied directly to Lambert, but were he to have done so, he might well have echoed the children’s novelist, Philip Pullman, when he was leading a group of writers to protest at publishers’ plans to badge children’s books according to the age band for which they were deemed appropriate (the plan happily fizzled out).

At a meeting with senior publishing industry figures, Pullman opened with an impassioned warning of the perils of attempting to compartmentalise readership. The leading publisher heard him out, then requested that they keep the emotion out of the discussion and consider things rationally – to which, so the story goes, Pullman responded that he would very much prefer to keep the emotion in, if they didn’t mind, since this was an issue about which a great many people felt very strongly.

Vince Cable provoked Richard Lambert’s displeasure by using simple, unambiguous language to pose questions that many people might want to ask: ‘Why should good companies be destroyed by short-term investors looking for a speculative killing, while their accomplices in the City make fat fees? Why do directors forget their wider duties when a fat cheque is waved before them? Capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can.’

This may be rhetoric, depending on your viewpoint, but what is undeniable is that Cable’s choice of words summons images and stirs feelings. Which is where he and Philip Pullman will always have the edge over the dull pedlars of business-speak. They are clever men, both of them, and quite at ease with all things rational, but it’s in their readiness to make room for emotion that they become more than twice as effective as their less inspiring counterparts.

Today we take a group of business people to Andalucia for our annual Dark Angels advanced writing course. Apart from tuning their senses to the sights and sounds and smells of a foreign landscape for five days, we will also use a series of writing exercises to tune up their emotions, because we firmly believe that the best leaders and communicators (and increasingly I wonder if there’s really a difference) are the ones, like Cable and Pullman, who choose to keep the emotion very much in, if you don’t mind.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Treasure trail

Visit the V&A from tomorrow and for the next nine days you’ll see something rather unusual: large red panels with alternative interpretations of twenty-six objects in the museum’s British Galleries. There will be the normal curatorial information: stuffed dragon’s head, Ruritania, c 250 AD, ironwood mount inlaid with mother-of-pearl, taxidermist unknown (possibly George, St). And beside it there will be a more whimsical, reflective piece of writing, 62 words long, which captures some aspect of the spirit of the object.

This is 26 Treasures, part of the London Design Festival, and I make no apology for mentioning it for the second time in as many months. The brainchild of Rob Self-Pierson, a recent graduate of University College Falmouth’s MA in Professional Writing, 26 Treasures invites 26 writers to respond in their own way, in precisely 62 words, to an object with which they’ve been paired. Rob took the idea to the writers’ collective 26, and 26 approached both the V&A and London Design Festival.

The resulting project has grown bigger and attracted more publicity than anyone could have imagined. The V&A has welcomed it as ‘a brilliant idea’, while 26, no stranger to projects of this kind, has set up a second stream of pairings, such was the demand from its members for a place among the original 26 writers (who include poets Andrew Motion - a bust of Homer; and Maura Dooley - an ornate mirror). Soon, anyone will be able to submit 62 words on an object of their choice via the website at

Blogging about the project this week, my fellow contributor, Sara Sheridan, the Edinburgh-based historical novelist, mentions the ‘refreshingly egalitarian’ approach of 26, by which she means that it’s not a tight-knit little literary club, but one that’s open to anyone with an interest in words. And indeed she’s right: 26’s members range from poets and novelists to language experts and brand consultants, marketing and communications people to freelance business writers, advertising copywriters and graphic designers.

26 is testimony to the fact that the writer’s life can come in many shapes and sizes, not all of which involve writing books, but most of which are defined by a common curiosity in the workings of the world and a passion for the words that allow us to investigate them. 26 Treasures is a lovely example of the unexpected paths down which that curiosity and passion can take one. Do drop in and see it if you can. If not, have a look at the website.

26 Treasures, British Galleries, V&A, 18-26 September

Sara Sheridan's blog

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Jam yesterday

The city of Gurgaon, where I’m staying, is a satellite of Delhi, fifteen miles or so from the centre of the capital. Twenty-five years ago it was mainly green fields. Today it’s the sixth largest city in the state of Haryana, home to many global names in the financial services, telecoms, automotive and outsourcing industries, one of whom is my client.

It’s a city literally springing up before one’s eyes, and full of the kind of contrasts you see only in India. Pigs rootle in the rubbish at the gates of towering new corporate HQs. Rajasthani labourers and their brightly-dressed wives live in plastic-sheeting shelters on the construction sites where they work. Bamboo scaffolding clings to high-rise apartment blocks. Cows amble down the centre of the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway.

Yesterday Gurgaon was paralysed by its worst-ever traffic jam. Why? Because the authorities were testing the dedicated lanes that will bring Commonwealth Games traffic to Delhi from outlying areas when the games start in October. In the ensuing chaos of blocked access and exit roads, hundreds of thousands of people (luckily not including us) were stuck on the expressway for up to six hours. Add to that the fact that a late and particularly vicious monsoon has wrecked the surfaces of many of the main roads – the result of cost-cutting and corruption among contractors and officials – and you start to get a sense of what the daily commute for Gurgaon residents may be like in coming weeks.

But this is India. People just shrug and try their best to get to work. If they can’t, they take a day off. Most people that is. Not the Indian national cycle team, though, according to a sad little story on the front of yesterday’s Hindustan Times. The cyclists were brought to Delhi from their training base in Patiala to get in some early practice on the routes where they will compete next month. But things didn’t go quite according to plan.

Despite leaving their accommodation at 4.00am, the state of the roads meant that it took the team two hours to get to the local expressway where they were going to train. They then had just two hours’ cycling before having to stop for fear of being mown down by rush-hour traffic. Then there’s the near-epidemic of mosquito-borne dengue fever, a direct result of standing water from the monsoon, which is hitting Delhi. With no team doctor present to tell them what precautions to take, three of them were immediately struck down with the fever. Another six caught viral infections, leaving only seven of the 18-man squad fit for training, and now – unsurprisingly – they’re back in Patiala again.

What’s this go to do with kind words? Nothing at all. I’ve had enough of language this week with my students. Occasionally it’s good just to write about whatever you feel like - in this case the continuously extraordinary experience of being in India. And it's my twenty-second wedding anniversary today. So there.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Crystal clear

My final event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, last weekend, was hosting the linguistics professor, David Crystal, one of the world’s foremost authorities on language.

A consummate communicator, David was speaking mainly about the wonderfully titled Begat, his new book about the influence of the King James Bible on the English language. The book features the 257 expressions (fewer than he had expected when he began his research, he admitted) that in one form or another have found their way into the common parlance: expressions such as ‘fly in the ointment’, ‘my brother’s keeper’, ‘east of Eden’ and so on.

During the talk he briefly mentioned another book, A Little Book of Language, which has also just come out. I had been sent it by the publishers and had dipped it into before the event. It describes our relationship with language from our very first infant cry to the way we develop our own distinctive ‘voice’ as adults. It is simply and charmingly written, illustrated with pleasing woodcuts, full of fascinating information (‘salary’ and ‘sausage’ have the same etymological root, for example) and peppered with did-you-know pages featuring talking parrots, rhyming slang, foreign language texting and the like.

But it left me with a question: who was it written for? There was nothing on the jacket to say it was for foreigners or children, but there was something in the voice that nagged at me. I asked him when we met before the event. ‘I wrote it for twelve-year-olds,’ he said proudly. ‘What’s more, I road-tested it with several. They didn’t let me get away with anything!’

Twelve-year-olds. Yet this was a book that would entertain and inform any adult reader. In fact, my bet is that one would learn much more about language from this little volume than from any weighty textbook.

More and more I think that the communicator’s greatest gift is to be able to be universal, to speak to everyone. Today I’m going back to Delhi, and one of the exercises I will set the participants on the communication skills workshops I’ll be running is to describe what they do as if to a twelve-year-old. We did it last time and they found it both surprisingly difficult and unexpectedly enlightening.

I once heard the former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, say that the adults he found most interesting were those who know that the child inside them is their soul. One of the things that child craves, in this world of ever increasing complexity, is simplicity. And that child is in all of us. We should remember it when we write.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Who dares ...

I have spent most of this week in Charlotte Square, home of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, drinking too much coffee, eating too many sandwiches, but revelling in my annual literary fix – the company of other writers.

Some are my good friends; some are acquaintances, to be caught up with once a year in the cluster of yurts that serve as the authors’ hospitality and backstage area; some are my heroes, literary giants whose mere presence reduces me to a state of tongue-tied awe; and some are those whose work intrigues me and whose events I feel brave enough to chair.

This year the latter include four household names – William Dalrymple, Roddy Doyle, Melvyn Bragg and Alexander McCall-Smith, and three less widely known but no less interesting writers – the veteran Scottish novelist Allan Massie, the linguistics professor David Crystal, and the Observer’s deputy editor Robert McCrum.

Why did I choose these seven? Hard to say. Their subjects range from the Irish Troubles to the South Bank Show, Indian mystics to Precious Ramotswe and the chattering classes of Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions, the Royal Stuart dynasty to the King James Bible and a global version of English. Someone else might find a common thread, but right now I lack the energy or inclination to look for it myself.

One thing is obvious, though. They are all masters of their craft – or art, depending on how you see it. And it’s impossible to spend time here in Charlotte Square without - to return to last week's theme - reflecting on the gulf that exists between the way these writers communicate, and the kind of communication that goes on daily in offices, conference centres and other business venues around the country.

My interviewees are people who inspire because they do not stand apart from themselves. To hear them speak is to receive the whole of them, not some filtered version where their real personalities have been subordinated to the needs of the narrow interest group they serve, their language reined in by the processes and formulations of their professions. They know how to stand on the hill where they can see widely, and communicate their vision in simple but well chosen words. They’re not afraid to employ imagery, metaphor, humour – all the tools we use daily to communicate with one another as emotionally functional human beings.

Imagine the wonders that could be achieved if our business leaders could learn this one simple thing: that to communicate well, to inspire, one must commit all of oneself. One must dare to reveal one’s personality.

Thursday, 19 August 2010


Yesterday – to borrow the immortal words of the unknown football commentator – was a day of two halves. Well … seven-eighths and one-eighth to be more precise, but the contrast was less unevenly marked.

There’s an equation that goes: Edinburgh plus professions equals language that's utilitarian at best, anachronistic at worst. There are no high desks, wing collars or quill pens any longer but their traces linger in the Adam cornices, the panelling and picture frames of many a fine New Town building; and they make their presence felt in some of the more fustian turns of phrase – ‘upon receipt of’ for example – that are still liable to grace an accountant’s report or a lawyer’s letter.

I spent the large part of yesterday running a workshop for one of these august institutions, a professional body. I was there because they recognise that they need to bring their language into the 21st century, particularly at the point where they have to deal with their twenty-odd thousand members; although the waters are muddied by the fact that they are also the regulator for their profession, so the poor souls in the membership team lead a schizophrenic existence, wearing customer service smiles one moment and traffic warden’s frowns the next.

But the will to change was there and my small group worked hard to dust away the cobwebs and cast off the shackles of a century or more of institutionalised, functional language. ‘Members are people too,’ said one of them at one point, and I raised a silent cheer. No one was expecting this group to become poets or novelists overnight, but they recognised that there were human connections to be made, as well as a fight to be fought.

Once the workshop was over, I walked along to Charlotte Square for a restorative cup of tea at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Here in the magical tented village that springs up every August, there is not a linguistic shackle in sight. Far from being a constraint, language here is celebrated – and winged. It takes flight, it moves, inspires, tickles, infuriates, terrifies, thrills. It flows through the marquees like the life force itself and everywhere you look people are immersed in it, up to their necks in words, up to their eyes in stories, up to the crowns of their heads in ideas.

A mere half mile apart, here were two groups of people, the one effectively hemmed in by language, the other entirely liberated by it. And, not for the first time, I found myself thinking how much the world of work has to learn from the world of culture…

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Lingua franca

For the second year running we have been on a walking holiday in the Italian Alps with a couple who are among my wife’s oldest friends. Our relationship is that relative rarity – a foursome in which all members get on with each other equally well.

Hughes is French and Caroline English, though she has lived in France for nearly four decades. My wife, Sarah, is Scottish but was raised in the French Alps. She and Caroline are bilingual. Hughes’s English has a certain idiosyncratic fluency all of its own. My French is the weakest link, though serviceable enough for most of our conversations to be conducted in a comfortable blend of both languages.

Our walks this year were punctuated by stops to photograph the glossy, docile cows that graze the high summer pastures, whose softly clinking bells offer an almost constant accompaniment to our alpine rambles. An architect by profession, Hughes is also an artist who, as he approaches retirement from his architectural practice, is reacquainting himself with the easel by painting portraits of these delightful creatures.

But it’s not his buildings or paintings that we talk about so much as his novels, for Hughes is also a novelist. And this is where we’re limited by our respective linguistic proficiencies, for neither of us is really able to read the other’s work. So instead, we tell each other the stories of our books as we walk. This is a thoroughly companionable acitivity. It’s also energising: rather as work songs help fishermen haul in their nets, so storytelling is a wonderful aid to tired legs.

It can be instructive: hearing oneself speak aloud a story of one’s own creation throws its strengths and weaknesses into sharp relief. And in this context, the effort to make myself understood requires me to be more than usually precise, which in turn makes me more sensitive to the nuances, the authenticity and integrity, of the narrative. My listener's particular attentiveness heightens my comfort or discomfort in the telling of my own story, and there on the mountainside, issues I can fudge on the page come to stare me in the eye.

But most of all it’s revealing. We have probably learnt as much about one another from these fictions, as we have from all the conversations we’ve had over the years. They have enriched an already cherished friendship because to invent a serious story is to engage with one’s deepest human preoccupations; and whether we mean to or not, we lay ourselves bare in the telling of them.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

A noble cause (2)

Well, my box-maker (see last week) has mellowed. He’s got over his irritation at having to construct such an awkward object – he’s made quite a lot of them, after all – and now he’s sounding much more like the contented craftsman he really is, a man fulfilled by his work. Perhaps on some level I myself felt indignant at the lack of proportion, the asymmetry necessitated by the royal seal; for whose voice could I really be hearing but my own?

It took me some time to understand that what I really wanted to say was that the nobleman didn’t have a monopoly on posterity. Even then, the box-maker at first sounded chippy and snarly (me again?). But eventually I got him to where I wanted him, which was pleased at the prospect of making something which he knows will last every bit as long as the earl’s grant of arms. His sense of self worth is just as well developed as his customer’s, but he doesn’t need the external validation of a title; his craft speaks for itself.

Forthcoming launch dates mean that I can’t yet share the result here, though I will once it’s all in the public domain. But I can thank Olivia Sprinkel, my editor for this project, for reassuring me that I had actually said what I wanted to. As an occasional writer of poetry I find that is not by any means a foregone conclusion. There’s many a slip between a thought and the clear expression of it.

In another part of the forest … my acupuncturist friend (Chinese medicine, June 24) pointed out an inaccuracy in my telling of his story: the person who wanted to give him the job on graduating was the head of acupuncture in the hospital attached to the university; the person who blocked him was the head of department at the university itself.

I’m making the correction publicly (though my friend may think I’m over-egging the pudding) because inaccuracies diminish a story, even if it’s only the teller who is aware of them. The power of a story is directly proportionate to its truth – even in, or perhaps particularly in, fiction, where the wholly made-up story must contain human truths for it to be plausible, to ‘ring true’.

On which note (ringing, I hope), I’m signing off until August 12, when I will return with my ruminatory gland duly refreshed.

Friday, 9 July 2010

A noble cause

By this time next week I have to have written a very short piece about an object in the British Galleries at the V&A. It’s another project organised by the indefatigable ideas wallahs at 26, the national organisation that champions a more inspiring use of language at work (so named for the alphabet, the DNA of language).

26 Treasures is a collaboration with the V&A and it’s designed to explore new, perhaps more creative and less literal, avenues of interpretation. Like all 26 projects it pairs writers with subjects, in this case items in the collection; and like all such projects it involves a constraint, which this time is an inversion of 26 itself – 62 words.

These constraints are a useful device. They concentrate the mind and the vocabulary wonderfully; very often they end up forcing the words into some kind of poetic form; and they make for short, sharp writing projects that seem manageable to even the busiest writers.

Yesterday I went to the V&A to look at my object. It’s a rather unusual document case, made in London in 1682, to hold the royal patent granted by Charles II to the first Earl of Abingdon. What makes it unusual, though, is not so much the contents as the shape. An ordinary vellum scroll would need a long thin box, but this one happens to be attached to a royal seal the size of a large saucer, so halfway down the thin, almost metre-long box is a large-saucer-shaped bulge.

The starting point for almost everything I write is the emergence of a voice of some sort. I need to hear the words being spoken by someone. In this case, standing before the glass case in the gallery, I hardly had time to wonder whether it would be the owner, the maker or the object itself before I heard this: ‘Oh no! Not another bleedin’ patent box. These things are an absolute bastard to make.’ It's true, it must have been a hideously awkward thing to construct, all the nice easy rectilinear proportions sabotaged by the circular excrescence.

Whoever the maker was – and history doesn’t relate – I don’t imagine him sharing much in the earl's delight at his own recent ennoblement. That said, there would surely still have been a craftsman’s satisfaction in completing such a solemn, if strange-looking, object with its fine covering of tooled Moroccan leather, hand-blocked paper lining and shiny brass lock. The story continues to unfold. More next week…

Friday, 2 July 2010

Attention citoyens!

Fixed to a telegraph pole at the foot of the hill below the chateau is a loudspeaker. At irregular intervals throughout the day it emits a two-tone chime like those that precede flight announcements, and then a voice booms out. ‘La population est informée…’ that the travelling butcher’s van is now parked in the village square and open for business, or that the post office will be closed tomorrow for training, or some other indispensable item of civic information.

It’s extraordinarily intrusive, as well as being mostly unintelligible on account of the fact that the amplified voice bounces off the chateau and its terraces, the walls of the Canal du Midi which flows below us, and any other solid surfaces within a fifty metre radius. It’s intrusive particularly because we’re here to write, the ten of us who have come together on retreat at Chateau Ventenac; though it must be equally irritating, I’m sure, for the ordinary holiday-makers staying nearby or moored in their barges on the canal.

Jolted each time from my thoughts, I find myself imagining we’re being summoned to a guillotining, or at the very least a village assembly and a couple of rousing choruses of the Marseillaise. Although it’s only information of a (moderately) useful nature, there’s a distinctly Orwellian feel to the whole thing. If it were to start ‘Attention citoyens!’ one wouldn’t be surprised. And it comes with an image of a prim woman in a khaki uniform sitting at a microphone in a booth somewhere in the bowels of the mairie, waiting for the next official to solemnly hand her a piece of paper.

Then there are the motocyclettes, the smirking, sniggering teenagers of two-wheeled transport, designed surely, with their defiant, hornet whine, for the sole purpose of deafening and infuriating. For all that, the benefits of Chateau Ventenac far outweigh its disadvantages: a building full of character, plenty of shady nooks and corners for working, a swimming pool, a superb chef. We are all managing to write and in the quiet hour before dinner we gather on the terrace with a drink and take turns to read. Then the loudspeaker is silent, the motos are garaged or parked outside bars, and we are alone with our words. That’s what we’ve come for.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Chinese medicine

Periodically I visit an acupuncturist for aches and pains. He’s a charming Chinese man who finds it a little hard to get his tongue round the English language, but he has a gentle manner, a lovely smile, and he fixes me every time.

Until recently I knew relatively little about him other than that he came to the UK eight or nine years ago and he’s in his forties, married with two children. Then, last time I went to see him, I asked him how he came to be a doctor. This is what he told me:

‘When I was a teenager two of my grandparents died, one on each side of the family. I was upset not just because I loved them, but because they needn’t have died. But where we lived there wasn’t the medical help that would have saved them.

‘My father was a teacher and he wanted me to follow him in his career. But when it was time to leave school I decided that I wanted to study medicine so I could do my bit to make sure my other two grandparents lived good long lives.

‘I got a place at university but when I arrived there I discovered they were teaching Chinese medicine. I’d done science at school and this was a whole new way of thinking. I hated it. I went home at half term – a nine-hour bus journey – and when I got there I burst into tears. I told my parents what the matter was, and my father was horrified. “You can’t quit,” he said. “You’re the first member of our family to go to university. Not just that, you’re the first person in the neighbourhood to go. Everyone here is so proud of you. Think of the shame.”

‘What could I do? I stuck it out and five years later I graduated, having studied both Chinese and Western medicine. I’d worked hard and I came top in my year. The head of my department was very pleased with me and wanted to give me a job, a good one. But it was 1990 and the previous year I’d organised the local support for the Tiananmen Square protesters. The head of the university was a party man. He wouldn’t allow me to be given the job. Instead I was sent to a big hospital in another region.

'It was all right there. I was left alone and I liked the work. I ended up setting up and running a whole new department in the hospital. But I didn’t like the politics and when the chance eventually arrived to come to the UK I jumped at it.’ Here he stopped and gestured at the little treatment cubicle. ‘I don’t have a big job now,’ he said, ‘and I don’t earn a lot of money.’ Then he smiled. ‘But I am free.’

Next time I go to him for treatment I will see this delightful man in a completely different light. Such is the power of stories.

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Bay of Cod

Tarskavaig is in sunlight this morning. Out across the water the Isle of Rhum looms from a misty sea. Tarskavaig, or the Bay of Cod, is a crofting township on a hillside in the southwestern corner of Skye. A scattering of twenty or thirty houses, it has a village hall with a spectacular view north to the Cuillins, where we played last night.

This is day five of the Troot Tour, so-called because my two fellow musicians, fiddler Pete Clark and accordionist Gregor Lowrey, are fanatical fishermen. By day they fish (a non-fisherman, I walk, swim or write), and by night we play for our board and lodging.

So far we’ve been to Kilchrennan, Inchnadamph, Tongue, Ullapool, Plockton and Tarskavaig. Tonight we head for Inverie on the Knoydart peninsular, accessible only by boat from Mallaig, or via an eighteen-mile hike from the nearest road. These place names, anglicisations of Gaelic or Norse or, in some cases, combinations of both, lend extra movement to our itinerary; a sense of the continual swirl of people and language throughout the north of Scotland, the invasion, displacement, resettlement, emigration and immigration that has been going on here since neolithic times.

Running through much of that, a constant, if constantly changing, thread is the music we play. Many of the tunes are several hundred years old, and most are named for people or places – for example, Niel Gow’s Lamentation for James Moray Esquire of Abercairney, or the Sound of Sleat (the body of water that separates southern Skye from the mainland). Almost anything we play has a direct, identifiable connection with place, which is where the soul of the music comes from. This deep rooting in the landscape is why it touches the people who have grown up with it so profoundly.

In Fort William, on the way north, we gave an impromptu half-hour concert in the dining room at the old folks’ home where Pete’s partner’s father is now resident. As we started to play, one old dear got up and began to waltz, solo, round the dining room, blowing kisses to the other residents. The staff all came out of the kitchen. The manageress and a young carer danced a Gay Gordons, weaving between the tables. An old chap sang a song about Stornoway. Sitting at the piano, facing the wall where no one could see my watery eyes, I thought of my own stroke-ridden father, hating the short spells he spent in a similar establishment so that my stepmother could have respite.

Yesterday afternoon we gave another short concert, this time for the pupils at Plockton School, which is also the national traditional music academy. Fifth and sixth formers, they tapped their feet and nodded and smiled in recognition at the tunes we played. This is their music, these teenagers, just as much as the octagenarians in Fort William. Like the place names, it means something to them that goes way beyond mere melody or tempo. That’s where its strength lies and that’s why it will survive.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Being still

I have twice interviewed Yann Martel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The first time, in the smallest tent in Charlotte Square, was six weeks before Life of Pi won the Booker Prize. The second, in a packed main tent, was five years later, on publication of the beautiful illustrated edition of the same book. On that occasion, we talked mainly about his then work-in-progress, finally published this month as Beatrice and Virgil. But what I had forgotten until the other day was something else he mentioned at that time – his literary assault on Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister.

Since April 2007 he has been sending Harper a new book every fortnight ‘to encourage stillness’ as he eloquently puts it; although it’s really because he can’t bear the idea that his country is led by a man who doesn’t read or value culture. The first book he sent was The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. This week the list stands at Book 83, Caligula by Albert Camus. He has vowed to continue his campaign so long as Harper remains in office. The whole thing, including the replies – or lack of them, is documented at

In a less public arena, I also do my bit to encourage people to read, mainly by going into secondary schools to talk to teenagers about my books. Most of the time it’s a more rewarding experience than Yann Martel’s. An eager face, an intelligent question, a dreamy look – it doesn’t take much for me to know that my audience have momentarily let go their cool, forgotten who they are and entered my realm of stories and the imagination.

Very occasionally, though, it doesn’t work. Earlier this week I had a group of eighty fourteen year-olds for the after-lunch period. Maybe it was the fizzy drinks and sweets, maybe they were demob happy at the thought of the impending summer holidays, maybe it was the thunder in the air, or maybe there were just too many of them, but they were bouncing off the walls. Neither I, nor the four teachers present, could get them to settle. They were attentive for a little while as I read, but as soon as I began to talk or ask them questions, there were outbreaks of fidgeting, giggling and whispering.

Was I boring them? I wondered, soldiering on and trying to keep my temper. Possibly, though it was a routine I’ve performed dozens of times before to good effect in other schools. By the end, feeling thoroughly grumpy, I told them they were the most unruly group it had ever been my misfortune to address, which was true, although also slightly unfair because there were those who had listened despite their less well-behaved neighbours.

As I left I had to remind myself that even one listener, wide-eyed in that moment of self-forgetting – or stillness as Yann Martel would call it, makes it all worthwhile. I hope his persistence with Stephen Harper pays off.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Speaking in tongues

One of the perks of being on the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival is that I get an early look at the programme and the chance to put my name down for the events I would like to chair.

This morning, as I was looking through the list, two books in particular caught my eye. Without giving away secrets (the programme is embargoed until the day of the launch, June 17), I can say that although their subjects are separated by four hundred years, both deal with events that, according to their authors, have been hugely significant in shaping the English language.

The first is the publication of the King James Bible, whose elegance, lyricism and sheer linguistic brio set a wholly new standard of English which still, to this day, is seldom bettered. The other is the emergence of a 1500-word version of English that is now, thanks to Microsoft, becoming the lingua franca of the world’s two billion non-native English speakers.

The sublime and the ridiculous, one might think. How can one weigh post-Shakespearian, early Jacobean mastery of our uniquely rich language with some weird post-modern hybrid – a kind of pidgin cyberese? Aesthetically, of course, one can’t. It would be like comparing the work of Trollope with a Tweet.

But usage, in the evolution of language, is everything. And where the literate classes in the early 17th century were probably numbered by those households that possessed a bible, today computers are well within the grasp of the semi- or even barely literate; and anyway, literacy, or rather lack of it, has never been an obstacle to the spread of new linguistic mutations.

Furthermore, there are now more non-native than native speakers of English in the world - something, I believe, that is to be celebrated. Languages thrive through being spoken, and our own is lucky to have become almost universal, while also being deep-rooted and robust enough to survive any number of mutations.

What is much more to be feared is the loss of language, and here the numbers are terrifying. Apparently, of slightly more than 7,000 living languages on earth, just over 500 (seven per cent) are now nearly extinct, meaning they have only a few elderly speakers still living. But nearly half of those 7,000 have less than 3,000 speakers, which means, some suggest, that there are more than 3,000 vulnerable languages which are very unlikely to survive the next hundred years.

With these will go a sense of self and belonging, of history and culture, of personal and communal identity – as oppressors down the ages have known only too well. So we should be grateful for the incursions of Microsoft and others into our beloved English. It signifies that the language we speak is still very much alive.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Feel the heat

‘Stay indoors: It’s hot as hell,’ shouts the Times of India, ‘Met Office Forecast Grim; Hyderabad Sizzles At 44° C.’

India is currently experiencing all-time record-breaking summer temperatures. In Delhi, where I was until Wednesday, it hit 48°. That’s 118° for you Fahrenheiters. Now I’m in Hyderabad and I can say with certainty that at these extremes, four degrees make no difference at all. The moment you step out of whatever air-conditioned sanctuary you’ve been hiding in, it hits you like an all-enveloping blast from a gigantic hair dryer.

I’m here running communications training for a large Indian company and this is business travel of the most disconnecting kind – airport to hotel to training centre to hotel and so on, all in chauffeur-driven cars with the mean inside temperature of Scotland in March. Beyond the windows the heat pounds down on cows, road-workers, beggars, motorcyclists, rickshaw drivers and pedestrians. We slide past them with a sense of suspended reality, aware that an essential part of India’s soul is missing from our experience.

There’s something essential missing from the way my client organisation speaks, too. Theirs is not the natural language of human exchange. Process, analysis, statistics and data are their currency; and the lack of human content is exacerbated by the excessive use of Powerpoint, which has become so ubiquitous in the organisation that it has almost replaced conversation. The usual request is not so much ‘come and talk to me’ as ‘send me some slides’.

In the training I take people through a series of exercises designed to show them that anything, however small, that lights a spark in their audience’s imagination will increase tenfold the human contact they make. There’s a point at which understanding dawns, almost invariably followed by a smile and a look of longing in the eyes, then a worried frown and a flood of questions as their reality impinges once more and they retreat to their position inside the air-conditioned car, looking out at the hot, crowded, pulsating human world beyond, and wondering if they dare open the windows.

It takes courage to do it the first time, there’s no doubt, but once they have, once they’ve felt what happens when they let the heat and smell and sounds rush in and wrap around them, there’s no going back.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Death sentences

Nailing his colours to David Miliband’s mast last week in the Labour leadership election, former Home Secretary Alan Johnson said: ‘his greatest talent is the ability to put really complex ideas into very simple language.’

Personally, I don’t know about David Miliband as a leader. He may be very clever but there’s something rather creepy about him and he seemed astoundingly arrogant as a very young Foreign Secretary. But there’s no doubt that putting complex ideas into simple language is one of the great leadership qualities – in politics, business or anywhere else.

There’s an impassioned and hilarious book by Don Watson, an Australian writer and commentator who was, among other things, Prime Minister Paul Keating’s speech writer. Called Death Sentences, it’s subtitled ‘How clichés, weasel words, and management speak are strangling public language’.

Public language that defies understanding, he says, quoting Primo Levi, is ‘an ancient, repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires.’ Agreed. But that’s the deliberate variety.

My favourite passage in the book concerns another Prime Minister, RJ Hawke, whose accidental approach to language makes him sound like Australia’s answer to John Prescott, or possibly even Donald Rumsfeld.

‘He was one of those politicians,’ Don Watson writes, ‘for whom it sometimes seemed words were less the medium of expression than just so many bloody obstacles placed in the way of people who needed to see what he bloody saw. When speaking off the cuff, he embarked on his sentences like a madman with a club in a dark room: he bumped and crashed around so long, his listeners became less interested in what he was saying than the prospect of his escape

‘When at last he emerged triumphant into the light, we cheered, not for the gift of enlightenment but as we cheer a man who walks away from an avalanche or mining accident.’

At least he got a cheer. More worrying still are the leaders in business, the public sector, the arts, whose ruminations send you to sleep long before it’s time for applause of any kind. And as you doze off you can’t help wondering if they’re really leading anyone anywhere.