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.