Thursday, 29 April 2010

Jail talk

If I had been asked, as they filed in, to point out the one that most unnerved me, it would have been him. Thick set, bull-headed, covered with tattoos, including one in what looked like Arabic script across his neck, he had a penetrating stare and a menacing energy.

Several of the prisoners, I had been warned, were on methadone, and that made them dopey; but this character wasn’t dopey, he was wired. I explained that I was going to talk about, and read a bit from, my own books, and then we were going to do some exercises. ‘Let’s keep it informal,’ I added. ‘If you want to ask questions as we go along, that’s fine.’

We were in one of the visiting rooms, an upstairs space the size of a tennis court with comfortable seating and spectacular views over coils of razor wire to the nearby hills; seventeen long- and medium-term prisoners, the writer-in-residence, half a dozen curious prison officers who, for the time being, were keeping their distance, and me.

I had hardly finished my introduction when Tattoos was in with his first question. He didn’t so much ask it as fire it at me, a staccato burst of almost unintelligible Central Belt patois. I had to wait while my brain decoded what it had heard before I could answer him.

Three minutes later there was another burst. And so it continued for nearly two hours. Every time I paused, and sometimes when I didn’t, Tattoos had another question. They were smart questions: about research, about characterisation and the role of personal experience in the writing process, about what is fiction and what isn’t.

I could feel my prejudices being dismantled. This was a highly curious, intelligent person, albeit one who severely lacked an education and had doubtless been let down by both society and himself in other ways. But his hunger to learn seemed insatiable, and so was his desire to express himself.

We ended with an exercise I have always loved, where people are given a series of prompts to describe someone they know using only metaphors. The result is a poem which brings the subjects alive in a vivid, unexpected and often emotionally charged way.

‘Who would like to share what they’ve written with us?’ I asked, fully expecting the usual lowered eyes and embarrassed shuffling of feet. But Tattoos had his hand up almost before I’d finished asking. I nodded and he fired off his poem as he had done the questions, at high speed, from somewhere at the back of his throat.

It was good. He’d chosen the prison governor as his subject and it was funny and heartfelt, ironic as well as poignant. ‘You are the Gucci watch of the Scottish Prison Service’ was the opening line. If he’d read it slowly enough for everyone to hear, he would have got a big laugh.

Even so, when he’d finished there were general murmurings of appreciation and I congratulated him fulsomely. His face widened in a beam of the most utterly childlike pleasure. I’ve no idea what he was in for, but I wondered when anyone had last told him he’d made a good job of something. Forty-eight hours later I’m still carrying that smile inside me like a charge of raw solar energy.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Holy week

I have to write a document that will help a community of monks make public its case for support. The community needs money for its buildings and for its members’ work as teachers, priests, missionaries and providers of physical and spiritual succour. It also needs fresh blood; its population is ageing and new vocations come few and far between in this secular age.

This week I spent twenty-four hours as the monks’ guest, sharing food with them in their refectory, attending their services, and talking with them about the monastic life and its relevance in the twenty-first century. I would like to say that I arrived weary with the modern world and left refreshed by the warmth of their welcome and the calm and beauty of their surroundings. But I didn’t. I had hard work to do, chiefly in understanding the purpose of prayer and how to express it, to a largely lay audience, as something that is worthy of support.

Their leader, a charming, quietly dynamic man in his early fifties, spotted my dilemma quickly. ‘How can you tell our story if you are not a religious person?’ he asked, more in curiosity than judgment. I replied that I spend a lot of my time looking in at organisations from the outside and trying to capture something of their spirit and personality; then at once realised the glibness of my reply. For here, the spirit in question is nothing less than the Holy Spirit, a phenomenon with which I am not personally acquainted.

His question continued to bother me, because it seemed like a legitimate one; in his position I would have asked the same. Only later did it come to me that there was another way of answering it, which is that it’s the writer’s job to imagine, to put him or herself in other people’s shoes. I can’t share the monks’ faith any more than I can share a businessman’s conviction for his enterprise, but I can at least make an imaginative connection with that very human quality of belief.

The thing that makes this connection possible is the research, the process by which one experiences the warp and weft of a particular universe, even if one can’t experience its spiritual or emotional underpinnings. So the sunlight on the lawns, the simplicity and majesty of the church, the fine old faces of the silent monks at their meals, the contemplative calm of the cloisters, all feed into something which, through the action of imagination, becomes a form of empathic understanding, if not actually a shared belief.

And empathy, the ability to imagine oneself as another and suffer as they do, is something I suspect monks understand very well.

Friday, 16 April 2010


Why did Nick Clegg ‘win’ last night’s prime ministerial debate? It may be an over-simplification to say it was because he sounded more human and believable than the other two, though that, I’m sure, was the essence of it. Of course, he had the easiest job as the outsider; and taking part in a heavily stage-managed public display of point-scoring seems to me like a generally rotten way of putting yourself forward to govern a country. But there is at least some comfort in the fact that the most apparently natural performer ‘won’.

As I struggled to remain engaged by the debate, my mind kept drifting away to a remarkable document that a friend sent me recently - a kind of personal manifesto by Jan Cameron who runs the Redhall Walled Garden in Edinburgh. This is a place where people with mental health problems can go to find peace and solace and, ultimately, recovery through the physical work of gardening and the close daily contact with nature that it brings.

It’s not a polished piece of writing. There’s no spin, it offers no sound bites. But as a declaration of what it means to lead a small, walled community – which, with all its inherent dysfunction, is surely a metaphor for society at large – it’s not only profound, but profoundly touching; still more so because gardening – or making things grow – is itself such a beautiful metaphor for leadership.

Here’s the final paragraph: ‘I feel privileged to work here. I love coming to work. Even the difficult parts when someone is telling me something awful that has happened to them, while stressful, it’s also a privilege that someone trusts me with that and I am always inspired by the courage that people show. I’m so glad Redhall is here for people to be able to share their experiences. I may need it someday and I want it to be here. The world feels safer to me knowing that there are places where people feel safe enough to open up and share and support each other and believe in a future for themselves.’

This is a voice that speaks simply, honestly, and is not afraid of emotion. It’s a voice that inspires through its very lack of artifice. I would follow a voice like that. If only our political and business leaders were able to speak in such a way... (I’m sure the gardening helps.)

Read more about the Redhall Walled Garden

Friday, 9 April 2010

Writing elsewhere

While we continue to pay daily tribute to International PEN’s 50 imprisoned writers through 26:50, I find myself constantly trying to imagine how they managed to write; where they found and concealed their materials, how they avoided the scrutiny of guards, from what miraculously still-luminous corners of their hearts they managed to summon the words.

I picture damp, dingy cells and furtive scribblings on shreds of paper with pencil stubs, scrapings on prison walls with bent nails, even etchings with pins on crumbs of soap, all from minds crammed to bursting with precious ideas. Yet these extraordinary constraints often gave rise to work of great power and even beauty.

In the free world we have to engineer our own constraints. The choice of where and how, let alone what, we write is something we take for granted. Here’s Hemingway: ‘It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.’

Most unusually for rural Scotland, I live within walking distance of both a small community arts centre with an excellent café, and a mainline railway station. These days I write less and less in my converted garage at home, and more and more in either the café or on the train. In both cases I draw energy from my surroundings.

On the train it’s both the movement itself that encourages my words to flow, and the sense of moving through a world I can see but from which I am temporarily isolated. In the café it’s the feeling of being fixed in a particular corner of the world but not really of it; I can observe it at close quarters if I want to, but I don’t have to engage with it.

In both cases there’s a sense of being removed but connected at the same time, and in both cases I feel nourished by the humanity that flows around me as I write, as if I’m being borne along on the tide of life. It brings an odd feeling of completeness, a sense almost of inner homecoming, that seems very conducive to creativity.

Try it when you next have something to write – find a café or take a train ride. And if you do, spare a thought for those writers who weren’t, or aren’t, so lucky.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Good Friday

Today seems like a good day to write about persecution. Trying to imagine the agony of crucifixion, of nails through palms and feet, of torn flesh and muscle, of gradual dislocation as the legs start to give way and the body weight slowly pulls the shoulders from their sockets, I can’t help thinking again of the 50 writers whose hounding, silencing, imprisonment and torture is currently being remembered, one per day for 50 days, by International PEN and 26 at 26:50.

For those of us who spend much of our time crafting the anodyne language of business, this project is a stunning reminder of the real power of our basic resource – words. If we write something that the powers-that-be (for which read clients) don’t like, the worst that can happen to us is an argument over the bill. But for 26:50 we’ve been paired with people who had the courage to speak out and take the consequences, which in some cases was execution.

My subject, Xosé Luís Méndez Ferrín, got off relatively lightly by comparison with some of his fellow PEN writers. A novelist, poet and Galician nationalist, now widely regarded as the towering figure of Galician literature, he was detained three times by the Franco regime between 1967 and 1980 (with a certain irony since Franco himself was a native Galician). Yet Ferrín steadfastly refused to write in any other language than Galician, and during his second spell in jail created a fictional writer, Heriberto Bens, under whose name he later published – with a foreword by himself.

I don’t actually know how Ferrín fared during his spells in prison, so my 50-word sketch is largely metaphorical, but I hope he would find some kind of resonance there if he ever comes across it (born in 1938, he is still very much alive).

You and the general
Shared a birthright
That awkward bastard
Mouthful of splinters
Your native tongue
But when he placed
His boot upon it
He forgot that hobnails
In the prison diet
Hone resistance
Whet contempt
While truth
Like blood or spittle
Finds its way
When even tongues are tied

Writing this left me feeling that we live in such a desperately timid world; that we no longer dare speak our minds on so many of the issues that matter. Yet ours is a functioning liberal democracy where freedom of speech is still considered sacrosanct and we don't live in fear of the three-am knock at the door. Nowhere is the language we use more vapid, more feeble, more lacking in conviction, than at work - where most of us spend the majority of our waking lives. On such a day as this I have to ask why? When did you last hear of a business writer being tortured?