Friday, 22 July 2011

Travellers' tales

This time next week I’ll be in the Galician town of Sarria, preparing for the first of six days’ walking along the Camino de Santiago. Santiago, of course, is Saint James, after whom I’m named – though it was a close thing, apparently, since my birthday is actually Michaelmas Day, September 29, and I was nearly christened Michael. But even though I’m not in any way religious, and we’re walking the pilgrimage route for whatever experience it brings us, I enjoy the thought that our destination will be Santiago de Compostela, the last resting place of the man who would have been my name saint, were I to have one. It lends extra meaning to the journey.
Sarria is 115 kilometres from Santiago and our journey involves the slightly back-to-front process of flying to Santiago, spending our first night there, then taking a bus up country to Sarria, whence we walk back again to Santiago along the pilgrimage route. The travel company simply moves our luggage each day from one hotel to the next, an average of 20 kms per day.
A few weeks ago our travel documents arrived in an oddly bulky envelope which, along with the brochure and reservations, included two scallop shells. My first thought was that they must be drinking scoops for use at springs along the way. I wasn’t wrong, but there are many other interpretations too. The scallop is closely associated with the mythology of Saint James and the washing ashore of his shipwrecked body. It’s also a metaphor for the pilgrim, the shell washed up on the shores of Galicia as the pilgrim is guided there by the hand of God. And finally its converging grooves represent the many different routes that converge on Santiago from all over Europe.
But it’s also simply a badge of pilgrimage. And I very much like the idea of being a pilgrim, of making a journey that has no secular purpose. We’re not walking to bring news to someone, we’re not walking to attend a feast, we’re not walking to market, and yet the journey has a very distinct destination – the cathedral of Santiago and the relics that lie therein. Having said that, a pilgrimage is also a case par excellence where it’s the journey that matters almost more than the destination; the calming, meditative value of simply walking, and the slow, gentle connection with one’s natural surroundings that it brings.
Then there’s the company of other pilgrims – and the Canterbury Tales immediately spring to mind. Who will we fall in with along the way (in 1985, 690 people made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela; last year it was more than a quarter of a million)? What stories will we hear – either from recreational pilgrims like us or, maybe more interestingly, from those with a real religious motive? I haven’t made much use of the small black Moleskine recently, but this is one holiday when I will definitely be taking one with me. I see this as a pilgrimage to some inner place of peaceful reflection (and perhaps that’s what God is), but it’s the thought of what lies en route that really excites me.
You'll forgive me if I don’t post for the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Indian elephant

I’m back eating dinner at the Leela Kempinski again, overlooking the Gurgaon toll, that winking 32-lane monument to Indian prosperity. Two things are different this time (see earlier post). First, I’m not reading Rosemary Sutcliff (though I did watch the film of The Eagle on a miserably small screen on the way out and ended up feeling irritated that BA can’t provide better quality viewing). Second, my room faces away from the city and overlooks a large tract of woods and farmland, maybe a mile square, that could be anywhere in rural India.
This afternoon I had a meeting in my sixth-floor room. One of my Indian visitors stood at the window and pointed down to where an ancient tractor was slowly ploughing a strip of field.
‘That chap’s probably sitting on twenty million,’ he said.
In hindsight, I’m not sure whether he meant rupees or dollars. But even if it was the former, that would be close to £300,000, a fortune for a small farmer. Only twenty-five years ago, most of modern Gurgaon was like that – open farmland. Fifteen miles from Delhi, there was an ancient town here, but nothing resembling a city.
Today Gurgaon has 1.5 million inhabitants and in the course of a single week you can practically see the skyline change as cranes swing to and fro and new business centres, apartment blocks or ‘convenience malls’ inch upwards. It’s the second biggest city in Haryana province and the first Indian city to have distributed electricity to every household. It has the third highest per capita income in the country and would be far higher than eleventh in the national ‘life-after-work’ index were it not for its abysmal roads and public transport system (and that despite being at the end of the new Delhi metro line).
But this is India, and the statistics take on a comically different perspective when you emerge from a meeting in a gleaming new corporate headquarters, pass through the security lodge, step out onto the street and trip over a pig.
Though I’ve yet to see an elephant here, I can’t help feeling Ganesha must be smiling on Gurgaon. I’ve always felt an affinity for the jolly, pot-bellied mono-tusker. There’s something irresistibly life-affirming about him. He makes me want to pat his fat tummy and tweak his trunk. I also like the fact that in some representations he’s holding a pen, though I didn’t know until today (99 Thoughts on Ganesha is my Gurgaon reading this time) that at the request of the sage Vyasa, he wrote down the whole of the Mahabharata in a single day. Respect, Ganesha!
He’s also the embodiment of prosperity and material auspiciousness. It must have been an inkling of this that sent me searching for a little silver statue of him on the last afternoon of an earlier trip to Delhi, a holiday that time, of which I later wrote:

You could have gone your own way
In search of silk or bolts of cotton
But on that final frantic afternoon
You followed me without complaint
In and out of shops and stalls
Where swarthy men drank tea
And proffered trays of stones
Agate, lapis lazuli, cornelian
Until at last we found him
Thumb-high, smiling
Pot-bellied, pen-wielding
Merriment with a trunk
I brought him home
And sat him on my desk
My little silver one-tusk
Fragment of the east, fellow scribe
Bringer of wealth, so they say
Though when I think about him now
It isn’t earthly riches that I see
But your patient hand in mine
That last hot Delhi afternoon

   Now, five years on, I can’t help wondering whether perhaps he himself has had a hand in my return to India, in the new and bountiful relationship I’m enjoying with this flourishing, infuriating and utterly captivating country.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Striking a balance

In a working week whose patterns are largely consistent only in their inconsistency, I have two regular punctuation marks. Both occur on Thursday. One is writing this blog, which I tend to do late Thursday afternoon (the fact that it arrives in people’s inboxes on a Friday morning is not, I’m afraid, a matter of design, but rather a happy accident; and how quickly the habit formed!). The second, later in the evening, is playing the piano with assorted fiddlers, mandolinists, guitarists, small pipers (the instruments, not the players) at the weekly session in my local pub on the banks of the river Tay.
To echo the point made by fellow writer Tim Rich in his excellent post from last week’s 66,000 Miles Per Hour, both are a kind of calisthenics, one for the brain and one for the soul, and I’ve come to depend on them to keep me in balance. When yesterday, towards the end of a punishing week, after a lightning strike had knocked out our local power and forced me to drive fifteen miles to the library in Perth in order to continue working, it looked for a little while as if I was going to have to forego both, something inside me protested insistently.
In the end it was the blog that gave way. Despite feeling utterly exhausted, I went to the pub, drank a pint of Guinness, played for an hour-and-a-half, and as a result had the first really good night’s sleep I’d had all week. Just as well, since I leave in a couple of hours’ time on the first leg of the journey to Hyderabad. On Monday I’m going to be running a workshop for an international group of 50 high-flyers on the first day of a year-long fast-track leadership programme; and this is the real source of the exhaustion.
I’m going with my friend and colleague Paul Pinson, who for many years ran his own Edinburgh-based theatre company, Boilerhouse. Paul is no stranger to moving large numbers of people about. In fact, our 50 are a mere scattering compared to some of the crowds he’s had marching about the streets of Edinburgh, the coastal dunes of Holland, and other places where he’s mounted site-specific productions. Nevertheless, the planning of this single day (which we’re then repeating with two other groups) has involved ten times more work than I’d ever imagined. I knew it was turning into a marathon when Paul said, ‘this is beginning to remind me why I eventually wound Boilerhouse down’.
But there’s a strong undercurrent of excitement that has carried us through each successive physical and mental barrier. We’re going to be taking these people on the first steps of a journey which, if we’re successful, will be much more significant to them than the physical one Paul and I are making from Scotland to India.
For me, meanwhile, it has been more a matter of gymnastics than calisthenics. But it does remind me how important is the balance between the two.

Friday, 1 July 2011


Hyper-connectivity is not a word I’d heard until yesterday lunch-time, or if I had, it hadn’t registered.
It has now.
I was listening to three writers talking on Radio 4 about how our lives are being affected by our unprecedented exposure to information and to each other. They were an American writer who had realised that it was jeopardising his family relationships and has since written a best-selling book on the subject, a young journalist who admitted, among other things, that her smartphone had got her through the isolation of early motherhood, and a columnist who considers himself ‘not quite a luddite’, yet still can't organise his email and only reluctantly uses a mobile phone.
They all had interesting, thoughtful things to say about the phenomenon and they were all more or less in agreement that hyper-connectivity has benefits, including the capacity to open up new neural pathways in the brain; but they also agreed that if we don’t manage it well it can be harmful. There were three phrases that particularly stuck in my mind: ‘the traffic jam inside my head’, ‘we need to get back into our bodies’, and ‘we run the risk of not thinking deeply any more’.
In general, I like it all. I've come to see the the Internet, email, texting, Twitter, LinkedIn as essential tools of my trade and I believe that I couldn’t make a living without them; but I also enjoy them and find them stimulating. Nevertheless, they dominate much of my waking day and I recognise that they’re responsible for the constant feeling of slight breathlessness that I now seem to live with.
The ‘traffic jam’ I know only too well, and I try – not always successfully – to respond to it by shunting the unnecessary stuff to the back of the queue (and my mind). The ‘getting back in my body’, which is actually the antidote to the traffic jam, I do mainly by swimming and playing the piano. It’s the ‘thinking deeply’ that I find more of a problem.
I’m particularly conscious of it this week because I’ve just received the first copies of Room 121, my new book, co-written with John Simmons. Those three months over last winter when we were writing it, exchanging on an almost daily basis the blog posts that form each chapter, were a period of deep thinking because the time was ring-fenced; it had to be or we wouldn’t have met our deadline. And I’m proud of what we created because I believe that, thanks to that deep thought, the book goes way beyond the professional remit expressed in the sub-title: a masterclass in writing and communicating in business. At its core it’s a book about being true to oneself, about finding an authentic voice whatever one does, business leader or bus driver.
But as soon as we finished it, hyper-connected life crashed back into the almost sacred space we had created for ourselves and the deep thinking time was lost. Now I’m left with the frustration that while my life seems particularly rich in experience, my resulting view of the world feels only half-formed because I don’t have enough time to reflect on it. I know I need time to think deeply in order to do what I do better, and I know that hyper-connectivity is the main reason I don’t have it.
This strikes me as being one of the really big issues at this moment in our development as human beings; the way we choose to deal with it will be crucial to the direction society takes next. Yet perhaps my personal response to it needs be nothing more complicated than this: just write another book.