Friday, 27 May 2011

The eagle

Yesterday evening I raised my glass to Rosemary Sutcliff. It was an odd moment. I was sitting on my own in the restaurant on the sixth floor of the Leela Kempinski Hotel in Gurgaon, overlooking what my driver had proudly told me earlier in the week is the largest road toll in Asia (Ay-zee-a, he pronounced it), sixteen lanes of winking red tail lights, sixteen lanes of unblinking white headlights; and she had made me cry.
Here, in one of the most conspicuously modern cities of 21st century India, I was reading about Roman Britain. The young invalided former centurion Marcus and his freed slave Esca had made it back across Hadrian’s Wall having rescued the talismanic bronze eagle, lost by Marcus’s father and his few remaining comrades of the Ninth Legion in their heroic last stand against the tribes of the north.
Perhaps I’m getting sentimental as I get older, but their exhausted, quietly triumphant return to Marcus’s gruff old uncle’s villa at Colchester, and an ecstatic welcome from Marcus’s tame wolf cub, brought tears to my eyes. But then again, perhaps it’s not age. Rosemary Sutcliff was an exceptional writer and The Eagle of the Ninth her best-loved book. I had read it as a child and adored it. Prompted by the release of the current film (which I’ve deliberately avoided, though now I might see it), I bought a new copy for this trip and was not disappointed.
Like her character Marcus, Sutcliff herself endured disability, though his was acquired in battle whereas she was an invalid from infancy. A progressive wasting disease confined her to a wheelchair for most of her life. Yet she managed to evoke with the utmost plausibility events she could never possibly have experienced, for example a wild and terrifying manhunt through the hills and bogs of central and southern Scotland; and more remarkably still, a lyrical vision of landscape and a natural world that she was most unlikely ever to have seen.
‘Well, that’s the writer’s job,’ one might say, ‘to imagine.’ And one would be right. It just happened that, imprisoned in a frail body, she was particularly good at it. She died, heaped with honours, at the age of 72 in 1992.
She would certainly have been an inspiration to the young Indians I’m here to help with their writing and presentation skills. To communicate properly with your customers you have to be able to imagine you are them, I’ve been exhorting them. Tell the customers what they need to know, not what you want them to hear. And they try, because they value self-advancement highly and are eager to learn anything that will help them. They’re admirable people, these young Indians. Their working environment is ferociously competitive – I don’t think anything in the UK even begins to resemble it – and the rewards for success are almost incalculable in their terms, yet in the training room at least they’re serious (though by no means solemn), dignified, even self-effacing.
But they’re shackled by the language of their industry and the American provenance of their organisation. In their language, one doesn’t send people to do things, one deploys resources. But if you think of people as resources, I point out to them, it’s not long before you start treating them as such. I’ve been coaching three of them during the second part of the week, and they’ve all pledged never to use the word again when they mean people. It’s a small step but it’s a start. I’m sure Rosemary Sutcliff, wise and humane, would have approved.

Thursday, 19 May 2011


What seems like a very long time ago now, I launched and published a monthly magazine for the radio industry. It was called, unsurprisingly, Radio Month and it aimed to do for the world of radio what Broadcast did for the television industry. I was the grandly-styled publisher and Nick Higham, who later went on to become BBC television’s media correspondent, was the editor. There were four of us altogether, in an unheated, rather smelly former shop on Dawes Road, in Fulham.
Radio Month was a trade magazine. It talked about programme-making and station management, studio equipment and the then relatively new business of selling advertising; commercial radio in the UK was only five years old when we launched and was still making itself up as it went along. We had a good run for three or four years, then came the recession of the early 1980s. Our own advertising dried up and the magazine went bust.
That painful moment was, quite directly, the start of my career as a business writer, although that’s another story. But working with the BBC’s Peter Day and his producer Sandra Kanthal through the recording of last week’s In Business programme about Dark Angels reminded me of two things in particular from that time.
The first is that radio then was populated mainly by enthusiasts. With a couple of notable exceptions (Kenny Everett, a true comic genius, being one) it wasn’t a celebrity medium. You could look like the back end of a bus and still be a brilliant broadcaster, the pay was generally lousy, the hours long, the working conditions sometimes hair-raising, and the company often eccentric. Most people who worked in radio did so because they really loved the medium. They were genuine, and genuinely committed. Sadly, I’ve lost touch with that world now so I don’t know whether the same is still true. I hope so. Peter and Sandra certainly both seemed cast in that mould.
The second thought, and it’s hardly an original one – though I think it connects with the first in some slightly opaque way, was that radio was, and remains, so much more a vehicle for the imagination than television. Peter and Sandra had nothing but a couple of microphones (one of them admittedly rather large and hairy, like an unkempt rat on a stick) and a tiny digital recorder with which to create half an hour of radio. The resulting programme was rich with the sound of bells, of footsteps, of different voices, of echo and its opposite – close presence, all building an atmosphere of Oxford and the mood of a Dark Angels course. It left one room to create one’s own pictures, all the more powerful for being personal. (Click here if you missed the programme.)
The analogy is there with good writing, which leaves room for one to attach one’s own thoughts and feelings to the words written; a lesson which the business world still largely has to learn. And perhaps the people who write well for business are also rather like the radio-makers, unseen craftsmen and women, who know how to create space for one to make an imaginative connection with the subject at hand, no matter how dry. These are not the people who would ever write, as I recently heard one organisation proudly declare, that they are ‘nurturing their talent pipeline’; for which Orwellian abstraction read people.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Still crazy

Last weekend I went to see Wim Wenders’ film Pina, about the work of the pioneering German dancer and choreographer, Pina Bausch, and her company. It was an extraordinary two hours, not least because Pina herself died three weeks after filming began, but rather than abandoning the project, at the insistence of the company Wenders turned the film into a tribute to her. Inter-spersing the dance footage, each member of the company in turn speaks a few words to camera about what she meant to him or her. It must have been a profoundly emotional experience for them all.
Apart from these short spoken pieces the film was all dance and music. It was a feast of colour, movement and rhythm, some of it filmed during theatrical performances, some in ‘natural’ settings ranging from a river-bank to a steelworks, the rim of an open-cast mine to a busy motorway intersection. There were moments of humour and surprise, menace and tenderness, violence and joy. And underlying it all was a growing sense of the depth of Pina’s influence on her dancers – who came, it seemed, from almost every country under the sun.
I’m used to being transported by words, music and images, but less so by bodily movement and I was unprepared for how touched and inspired I felt by this film; not merely by the unseen but towering presence of Pina Bausch herself and the affection in which she was clearly held by her dancers, but by the beauty and grace of those lean, steel-muscled bodies, by their power to silently evoke all the emotional and psychological subtleties of what it is to be human.
Funnily enough, though, rather than making me want to dance, I left the cinema with a very strong craving for stillness. Those dancers, I felt, were able to move their bodies as they did, in some cases almost like acrobats, because they knew how to be still at their core, to create some point of inner calm and balance from which their control, and therefore the power of their movement and emotional expressiveness, flowed. That stillness was there in their faces even as they talked about Pina.
Life as I get older is not as I’d imagined it. It’s not slower and calmer, but faster and increasingly frantic. There is so much I want to do and never quite enough time to do it all. I’m sure I would do more still, and all of it better, if I could find that stillness. But it doesn’t come merely from the absence of activity; it’s the presence of something single-minded and disciplined, hard-won through years of practice. Yoga and meditation are paths to it. Perhaps we reach a version of it when we’re utterly absorbed in something, living only in the moment. But the trick must be in being able to put ourselves there at will, rather than waiting for the moment to strike.
I imagine it as a kind of gathering-in, of bringing all of oneself to a single point – which is just how Pina’s dancers were, the totality of their beings focused on each successive movement. Swap dancing for any other activity you care to name and the goal starts to become obvious, even if the means of reaching it are less so. But I love the paradox that these thoughts of stillness were triggered by a film about movement.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

A Cup of Kindness

Tessa Ransford, distinguished Scottish poet and founder of the Scottish Poetry Library, sent me this in response to Friday's post about Syria. She says: "I wrote this poem about three weeks ago after hearing Canon White from Iraq speaking on a Sunday morning interview on Radio Scotland."

Faith, Hope and Charity
wrote St Paul in his hymn to Love
these three abide

In Iraq, explains Canon White on the radio,
Democracy is not what people yearn for
blasted on them as it was through missiles and bombs

What they most want, why can’t we understand,
is water, electricity and kindness
life, communication, things working normally

God only knows
Buddha only knows
Mohammed only knows
everyone knows we want the kindness
which lies at the heart of our being

For boys and girls, men and women, animals and plants
for all who go about their lives
for daily bread and caring for one another
it is kindness we want

In Scotland we have given a song to the world
‘a cup of kindness’
to take, to drink, to share

Water, electricity and kindness,
but the greatest of these is kindness.
Tessa Ransford
April 2011

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The road to Damascus?

Walking back from the polling station yesterday afternoon in the drizzle, past the familiar faces and houses of our village, I found myself trying to imagine what it would be like to live in Damascus where, aged 61, I would never have had the experience of voting in a free, democratic election; where I would have lived my adult life keeping my thoughts to myself for fear of informers or the secret police; and where now, today, I would most probably be living in real terror of arrest and torture, if I hadn’t already been carted off.
But the thought that really gnawed was this: where, knowing what faced me, would I find the courage to go out on the streets and protest? It seems to me that those thousands of ordinary people across the Arab world, and particularly those in Syria, who have recently joined the crowds knowing that they may simply not make it home that evening, that they may be picked off by snipers or mown down by tanks, or rounded up later and taken to some hideous secret interrogation centre ­– these ordinary people are quite extraordinarily brave.
Having never felt the resentment and anger they must feel, I don’t think I can really understand where that bravery comes from. It must be a huge rage, a consuming sense of injustice, that will make a peaceable person expose themselves to the possibility of extreme physical or psychological pain, or even death. And perhaps in voicing these thoughts I’m also acknowledging the fear that, if it came to it, I would turn out to be a coward, unable to find that courage.
I imagine that anger of this kind must have a quickening effect, a sharpening of the sense of being alive. Perhaps it even promotes a feeling of invulnerability, and certainly there must be a sense of solidarity, even of some kind of collective safety, while you’re in the crowd. But when the bullets begin to fly, or the door’s kicked in at three in the morning, doesn’t even the most righteous indignation yield to weak-kneed terror?
Last weekend, under a cloudless sky, I spent a morning at the magnificent new Culloden Moor visitor centre. The battle still casts a faint shadow over Scottish politics, more than two hundred and fifty years later, and I was reminded that for years afterwards the Hanoverians ran a kind of police state in the Highlands, in which actual and suspected Jacobites were ruthlessly hunted down and normal civil liberties – including the right to speak one’s language of birth – were brutally suppressed. I was so caught up in the drama of those far off events, and their wonderfully vivid interpretation, that I didn’t think of Syria at the time, nor, oddly enough, the fact that we were less than a week away from our own election.
But I see the connections and parallels clearly now, and it reminds me just how fortunate we are to live in a democracy; also how vital it is that we lead politically engaged lives, that we stay informed, that we vote and that we teach our children to vote. That way, with luck, our courage may never be put to the test.