Sunday, 30 January 2011

The New School

There has been a lot of interest in Friday's post, and the school is happy for me to give details. It is The New School at Butterstone, Perthshire.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Safe haven

This week I have been interviewing pupils at a small specialist school for young people who can’t get the support they need from mainstream education. It’s in a large old house, a lovely, comfortable, friendly place on a wooded hillside in a beautiful part of Scotland, and it seems that what happens there is almost miraculous.

The students, aged 12 to 20, have cerebral palsy, Aspergers syndrome, dyslexia, anorexia, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, autism and a wide range of other conditions, though on first arriving there you would never know it. It’s just like any other school, bustling with noise and activity and youngsters coming and going between classrooms.

Even on closer inspection you wouldn’t necessarily spot the difference between these students and their mainstream peers. There are friendly smiles and plenty of eye contact, a natural curiosity about who you are, together with a readiness to welcome and give directions.

Then you start to hear the stories and you begin to understand the physical, mental or emotional difficulties these teenagers are learning to cope with and overcome. You also hear what it was like before they arrived in this safe haven, and in particular of the bullying they have almost all had to endure. I heard from one young woman of being locked in the kitchens of a previous school by her schoolmates who told her, ‘we’re doing it because we love you’. I heard from a young man who had been ostracised to the extent that in the packed assembly hall of a large city school, the only two vacant seats were those on either side of him. I heard of children being physically abused by their peers and emotionally abused by their teachers. All because of their difference.

When they finally arrive in this secluded place the support available to them is all-enveloping, and it comes not just from the staff but from their fellow students. Unconditional acceptance is the watchword, and as a visitor I found the sense of community palpable. Each individual child is treated according to his or her needs, and one senses that underlying the cheerful hurly burly, there is an immense body of knowledge and experience, along with a complex system of weights and counterweights that maintains the delicate balance necessary for this remarkable place to function.

I heard about new friendships, outdoor adventures, academic achievements, creative accomplishments. I heard about profound behavioural change within weeks of children first arriving. But the thing I found most affecting, indeed almost overwhelming, was the bravery of these young people, not only in dealing with the difficulties that in previous, less loving surroundings had driven some of them to despair and self-destruction, but in their readiness to put the cruelties inflicted on them by others behind them.

Here they are free to be themselves and get on with the business of learning about and enjoying life, as we all do. They seem to do it with particular gusto.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Just do it

In the last twenty-four hours I have spoken to two Dark Angels ‘graduates’ who both, independently of one another and unprompted by me, said in so many words: ‘the main thing that I got out of coming on the course was the realisation that the thing I love can also be the thing I do to earn a living.’ They were not, as you might expect, both talking about writing. One of them is a writer who works in the world of branding, but the other works in the hotel business and is an entrepreneur.

Along with a little glow of proprietorial pride came the unspoken thought: so why would one not do the thing one loved for a living? Then I caught myself, remembering that for many, if not most, people it’s not nearly so simple. Even loving the thing you do, which doesn’t presuppose that the loving came first, can be difficult, let alone doing the thing you love.

I know it well. For a long time I thought that the thing I loved was writing fiction, while the thing I did most of, writing for businesses, was simply to pay the bills. But the effect of compartmentalising the activities in that way was to cause me a great deal of conflict: the bread-and-butter work that was supposed to buy me a small amount of time each day to write fiction left me too depleted to write well, so I ended up resenting it deeply while also struggling with the books. For quite a few years I neither loved the thing I did, nor did with any satisfaction the thing I thought I loved.

Happily there came a turning point, a combination of people and ideas that appeared in my life, along with a wonderfully supportive wife who effectively bought me a year of what I think of, in agricultural terms, as ‘set-aside’ – during which I did not much of anything while my creative soil replenished itself. And now I do what I really love, which is to communicate what I believe in any way available to me, through writing or teaching or making music. But it took me half a century, a good deal of heartache, and I had to let go of some extremely powerful conditioning along the way.

So when I hear that our work with Dark Angels has helped people to that critical understanding, that moment when it becomes clear that there is really only one thing they’re here to do, I raise a silent cheer. And today I would without hesitation say to anyone what I said to my second daughter a couple of years ago when she was wrestling with difficult career decisions, which was: don’t play safe, be brave, look into your heart and see where your passion really lies, then put your trust in the universe and follow that passion. She did. And I don't think she'd chide me for saying that she hasn't looked back.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Dark Angels

Each new year John Simmons, Stuart Delves and I meet in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s comfortable rooms on Edinburgh’s Queen Street, as we did today. It’s our annual Dark Angels partners’ meeting. We have a bar lunch, a bottle of wine, review the courses we’ve run over the year past and plan the year ahead, then John goes back to London on the train and Stuart and I shuffle off into the murk of a Scottish January afternoon.

Now entering its eighth year of existence, Dark Angels is a strange, uncategorisable beast ­– part business communications course, part creative writing course – and as far as we know there’s nothing like it anywhere else on the planet. Our students come from corporations large, businesses small and the freelance community. The corporate ones tend to work in brand management, marketing or communications; the others are consultants of one kind or another, or they are business writers. All come out of an interest in improving the way they write at work.

The Dark Angels thesis is that good writing is good writing whatever the context, and that the world of business communication has everything to learn from the world of literature. The skills that novelists and poets bring to their work are entirely transferable to the workplace and the exercises we set our students reflect that. Moreover, we make no bones of the fact that ‘creative’ writers generally work with their emotions and imaginations fully engaged and that good writing, in the workplace or anywhere else, therefore involves a large degree of self-awareness. So our students find themselves writing poems, stories and descriptive pieces, often on very personal subjects.

Most years we come to the conclusion at our January meeting that we could make more money out of Dark Angels than we do, but for that to happen it would have to become the antithesis of everything it currently stands for – which is an alternative, sometimes mildly subversive, vision of the world of business communications. Anyway, we do it mainly because we all three love it; it has become a passion. The thrill of bringing together a group of people who don’t know each other and taking them on a journey of creative revelation and self-discovery is very hard to describe. But it can be hugely rewarding and it is almost always moving and inspiring, the human capacity for inventiveness and connection a constant source of wonder.

Does it really work? This is another thing we ask ourselves annually. And if it does, how do we know? After all, the goal is to send our students back to work not as fledgling poets (though that sometimes happens) but as confident, polished professionals in the unforgiving world of business communications. On one level we know it works because people keep coming back. This April we’re running the second Dark Angels masterclass at Merton College, Oxford, at which most participants will already have been on two previous courses. But what about career development? Do Dark Angels graduates move ahead in their jobs?

It seems so. A quick trawl of past courses today produced quite a few potential ‘case studies’. Among those who have said to us that Dark Angels was a career turning point, one has gone on to be the senior writer for a major soft drinks company and recently won a coveted D&AD ‘yellow pencil’ award for copywriting; one now holds a very senior position in one of the world’s largest creative consultancies; and one has helped build the brand and write the best-selling books for one of the UK’s most popular TV programmes. It would be condescending to say that they’re our protégés, but we’re still in touch with them and their achievements make us proud.

And the name Dark Angels? It’s a nod to Milton’s Paradise Lost and the idea that our creativity comes from our flawed human nature; that as Dark Angels we are neither those who have ascended nor those who have fallen, but that we occupy the fertile, if broken, territory somewhere in between.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Don Roberto

My great-great uncle, RB Cunninghame Graham, or Don Roberto as he was known, was a character quite beyond anyone’s invention.

The Laird of Gartmore, in Stirlingshire, an aristocrat and descendant of Scottish kings, he outraged his landed neighbours by becoming successively a founder, with Keir Hardie, of the Labour Party, then a founder of the National Party of Scotland, and eventually founding president of the Scottish National Party.

A true radical and lifelong champion of the unemployed and oppressed, he was elected Liberal MP for North West Lanarkshire in 1886 on what must have seemed a hair-raising programme of reform which included nationalisation of industry, abolition of the House of Lords, universal suffrage, Scottish home rule and free school meals. He was the first ever socialist at Westminster and was once suspended from the House for uttering the word ‘Damn’. In 1887 he spent six weeks in Pentonville after being beaten and arrested during the Bloody Sunday protests in Trafalgar Square.

He wrote prolifically – travel, history, biography, poetry, essays, politics and short stories – and cut a dashing figure in the literary London of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Literary mentor to Joseph Conrad, he was also friends with John Galsworthy, GK Chesterton, WH Hudson, Ford Madox Ford and GB Shaw who acknowledged him as the inspiration for his play, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. Handsome and bearded, with strong traces of his grandmother’s Spanish blood, he was painted by Lavery and sculpted by Epstein.

He was also an accomplished horseman and an inveterate adventurer. After leaving Harrow, aged seventeen, he travelled to Argentina to make his fortune cattle ranching, but ended up being conscripted into a revolutionary army. This was the first of a number of spectacular failures, on several continents, the most outlandish of which was his unsuccessful journey in 1898 to the forbidden city of Tarudant in southern Morocco.

Disguised as a Turkish doctor, and accompanied by three locals, he set off on horseback into the Atlas mountains at a time when Christians were liable to be killed on sight. He was within a day’s journey of the holy city when he was caught by the local Caid and imprisoned for three weeks in that potentate’s mountain castle. He told the story later in his book Mogreb-el-Acksa ­– which I took with me to Morocco before Christmas.

I have previously found him wordy and, to be perfectly honest, have steered clear of him since he has been my mother’s lifelong obsession, and one devotee in the family has always felt to me like enough. But this time I enjoyed the book greatly, as much for his descriptions and wry observation of human foible as for the extraordinary story. Everywhere we went in Marrakech – in the Medina and in the great square, Jemaa el Fna – but especially in the Ourika Valley leading into the mountains, I felt we were accompanied by his ghostly, rangy figure, clad in turban and robes, astride the black horse he had bought for the journey.

There are any number of incidents and discursions I could quote from the book, all of which lent an extra dimension to our holiday, but the one I like best is the observation, for which he offers no explanation (though he was clearly an admirer of the Arabs), that a European shepherd drives his flock from behind, but an Arab leads it from in front.