Category Archives: analysis

Bridges & ditches

I walked up the footpath at the back of our land yesterday, to see the weather from a different place. The water was roaring down the stone gullies that have been dug out through the land, and hurtling down the path too. It is unstoppable.

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

At dinner with the neighbours last night we talked of the bewilderment of the summer tourist, who can make no sense of these great dry stone beds, with absurdly high bridges constructed over them. You need to winter here to understand, and then this Orange alert is making for weather rare even for the vrai Ardechois, born and bred to it.

We spent a long time, too, foraging for the right translation for combler la fosse, which in French is to fill in a ditch, to close a gap. In it’s context I went for building bridges, so with a twist of reconciliation, but in the dictionary afterwards it seems more likely it’s to bridge a gap. I wonder if there’s anything in the French effort to actually fill the gap, while the English blithely construct a bridge over it and leave it there? How high a bridge then.

Fred, who runs a supermarket near Toulouse, was talking about how easy it was, right from the beginning of the year, to detect the change in buying habits, although the sharp swing away from brands came in about May. Danone yoghurts down 9%, where before it was 3 freezer shelves stacked with President butter to one own brand, now it’s 2 and 2. Own brands have been winning out over the grandes marques for quite a while. For Fred, that’s fine, so long as he’s tuned early to the changes and can change his buying.

I was thinking about this in respect of some work on future story exercises I’m working on with Anecdote just now. Shawn, delightfully, uses William Gibson (science fiction writer)

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Fred can see the future in the changed distribution of butter in his freezers, one tiny image which pretty much conjures up a whole picture of crumbling economies. Of course, for organisational visioning you’d like the picture to be rosier, in one way. But it is rosy too. The own brand comes into it’s own.

I wonder whether there’s something too in the ditch versus bridge difference. We’ve been imagining future stories as a way to build a bridge from the future to the present, using present anecdotes (Gibsons we’re calling them) about future signs as part of the construction materials. Perhaps we need to be thinking about filling in ditches, combler la fosse, rather than bridging a gap. Or perhaps we need to build very high bridges indeed, knowing that the winter rains will wash away lower ones.

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Brothels in Bangladesh – a direct consequence of climate change

As I come to the shift of gear, the dreamy limbo of writing up the museums work we’ve been doing for the past few months and starting to clear a space to think about the work on horizon scanning and futures which hoves into few and will take up most of my thinking and unthinking space from February to July, I’m quite alert to tiny fragments which pack a punch. I’m finding a surprising amount in our mla database which seems to connect directly to the hsf thinking in ways that are almost frightening. For example I wrote recently about poetry as a kind of horizon scanner – the poetry library gets a surprising frontline view of what matters to people.Then in the Guardian this week I was startled by an article on the rise in prostitution in Bangladesh:

“The brothel opened 20 years ago, making it the newest and largest of the 14 recognised brothels in the country. It is set on the meeting point of two vast rivers, the Jamuna and the Ganges (known locally as the Padma), which makes this a very busy place to catch a ferry. Trucks carrying rice, jute, sugar cane and fish from the west and south-west of the country queue here for two or three days at a time to cross the river for the drive to the capital, Dhaka. In Bangladesh on a BBC World Service boat to look at the impact of climate change, I was surprised to find that an unexpected consequence of rising water levels is the growth in demand for prostitution. River erosion has meant the closure of some ferry berths, so men wait even longer to cross the river. And, while they wait, many of them pass the time in the company of Daulatdia’s women.”

We spent some time this week at a workshop imagining scenarios for mla relationship with business (banish mla as concept, replace it with a sense of extended learning places and resources essential to the rounded worker, then ‘backcast’ from that to the present day to see how one would achieve that symbiosis over, say, 20 years).

Anyway, my question for a couple of days has been, take a scenario (not good or bad, hopeful or unhopeful, just a confluence of circumstance) and imagine backwards from that circumstance how would would have forseen it in some way.So I’m interested in the idea of taking brothels (one can deconstruct brothel of course in quite a feminist way – poor endentured women with no prospects, men with too much time on their hands and not much inclination to do cultured things) in Bangladesh (low-lying land, under-resourced in flood management, having to react rather than act, most likely to be one of the frontiers where we witness the consequences of climate change, etc).But working back from brothels, Bangladesh, flooding, too few ferries, downtime. How might one, 10 years ago have forseen this thing? What kinds of horizon scanning might one have done in, say 1997? What kinds of different policies for prostitution and flood transportation might a reasonably accurate prognosis have led to?I think it might be interesting for our hsf governance work to come at it sideways, and find some unlikely events, from history and the present, and consider what a well-scanned intelligence process might have thrown up by way of a different policy path.What’s so interesting here is how little we prize the insights that people can bring from their daily witnessing. I’m witnessing a great deal of unlikely stuff because of where I sit. But I’m not a scanner or a futurist, and there’s no-one whose sleeve I can tug about most of it. I do it because it interests me and puts a bit of pep into my daily work. Think of all those scanners out there. If, instead of simply using people’s excess computing power to calculate space things,we used their witnessing power to help us see further, think of the changes that could bring about.

It happens a bit of course. Say the RSPB and birdwatching. There’s a model of participatory scanning that it’s worth looking more closely at, and I know Natural England so some interesting scanning using Cognitive Edge techniques. And it’s all trendy to talk about the wisdom of crowds. But I’m not talking about exactly any of that here. I think I’m talking about something a bit different that I’m trying to find and describe better.I’m off to read the Guardian and let it settle for a bit while I think about what it is I want to say next.

But before I do, a tiny, gorgeous little thing from my second visit to Louise Bougeois, accompanied by sketches of skyscapers as people – perhaps three of them standing together:

“One man was telling a story, it was a very good story, and it made him happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.

Yup, that happens a lot.

Offsetting the digital sales experience with stories

Oblique narrative pathways seem more than ever necessary to us as we want something more than a hard sell.   Take this Toast podcast which is a special Christmas project of book and podcasts intending, I suppose, to distinguish Toast from other online retailers. We want something which has been touched by human hand, or voice, and these kinds of slightly offbeat digital narrative projects help to put a face, a voice, a personal stitching hand, a sense of richness to the encounter which offsets the inhuman and functional aspects of the experience.

This is part of a bigger story called in a recent magazine article ‘The birth of nu-craft’. Writing about two exhibitions (one just past, called ‘Hot Craft’, and one just started at the V&A called ‘Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft’Fleur Britten writes about how craft has moved from being a ‘nesting pastime’ to an expression of creativity. Craft nights are springing up everwhere, including in unlikely places like working men’s clubs (a subject worthy of another blog sometime). The boundaries between craft, art and design are being blurred. We want the trace of the potters hand on the pot, both as potter seeking meaning in work expression, and as purchaser, seeking meaning in what we surround ourselves with. One of the interviewees in the article, Kate Westerholt (who co-curated Proud) sees is as akin to the Arts and Crafts movement, with people tiring of industrialisation and craving individuality.I don’t think it’s just that. I think there’s more too it, but it is a sign of an important trend.

I’ve been writing elsewhere about negative space, and, by inference, about the necessary slowness involved in the ambiguity of making your own meaning.This struck me too the other night when I was watching Pan’s Labyrinth, quite a chilling mix of fact and fantasy set in the Spanish Civil War. As with all Guillermo Del Toro’s films, there’s a great big allegory in there. What’s great and big about this one is that like ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ the fusion of both fantasy and fact make for a whole new personal narrative journey. And you have to park your analytical mind because the meanings are not, as my friend Markie would term it, isomorphic. The surrender to ambiguity and random resonance during the experience is what makes it meaningful.

This all seems to me to be part of a bigger search for personal meaning. Which Doris Lessing was also saying in her Nobel Prize Speech at the weekend. We need storytellers and writers don’t come out of houses without books in them, she says. But beware: 

“The inanities of the internet have seduced a generation, and we live in a fragmenting culture where people read nothing and know nothing of the world, the new Nobel laureate novelist Doris Lessing warned yesterday…. “We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.” I’m off to read and write real fantasy now

Taking stories to the other side

In one of the episodes of the final series of the West Wing, CJ Cragg is more and more frustrated by her inability to make a dent, leave something behind. So when someone from an NGO tries to make an appointment with her, she breaks with habit and gives him a slot in her diary.

He overwhelms her with statistics about the atrocities in Sudan. Thousands, millions, terrible things, rape, amputation, devastation. It’s all beyond her grasp, there is nothing she can imagining doing in this vastness of human failure, and he can see from her face that he is losing her attention, so he says, suddenly

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

20 words (I approximate, from memory.)

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

You can see the image of this slice through her helplessness and frustration and spring her to action, unorthorised by the President. When, at the end of the episode, he calls her to task for not having cleared things with me, it is this that she says to him. All the same, neither would have acted on those 20 words alone, although it took the 20 words to push CJ to action. The big numbers, the huge evidence of human tragedy filtered through the tiny glow of unbearable imagery.

This embrace between narrative and analysis was brought to mind for me yesterday by an article in the Guardian called ‘When the lights go out, students take off to the airport’

It tells the story, spliced with statistics, of the children in Guinea who go to study by the floodlgihts at Bgessia International Airport because they have no electricity at home. I doubt I would have read it if it had said ‘The lack of eletrictricity in Guinea is a ‘geological scandal”, although that quote comes further down in the article, when I’m ready to read it.

Some big challenges here, which must always be held close to the heart in marrying narrative and analysis in a thoughtful and authentic way, not just to pull.

The first is, how to make sure the illumination is not dramatising, but genuinely representative and informative, a way through image or metaphor, to help people find their way into a subject. In this article I really could hold the picture of the children and their education in mind and fill myself up with statistics on a subject which I had only thought about a little before.

An old article from March 2006, in something called OW weekly (whatever that is), lies filed in my ‘Small Stories’ category in my slowly emerging filing system. It is a profile, by Carole Cadwalladr of Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. Mary has been transforming the language of aid. She says

‘If we keep this conversation in trade langauge, then it keeps it as trade. But if we can show the human-rights consequences then i’ts more powerful. It makes people very uncomfortable.’

Cadwalladr goes on to say

‘Everywhere we go, Mary has a story to tell. At the coffee farm, she tells her audeince how she grew up surrounded by farmers in ‘the poorest part of Ireland’. At the Amana hospital she points out that Ireland’s history was not so very different from that of Tanzania, a poor ex-colonial land with a tortured history. There’s a story for everyone. And this, I realise, is what Mary does…you’ve got to be able to tell people things in language they understand. And what Mary’s doing is taking stories to the other side. To US member of Congress, she too takes from the cotton fields of Mali, of babies lying in ditches, because of the US governemtns’ $4 billion of aid to US cotton farmers. To the Tanzanians she tells stories of Ireland’s rise out of pverty adn to the country’s president Kikwete, she presses home how small changes in the health-care system that we saw in action at Amana hospital can signficiantly reduce the nubmer of women who die in childbirth.’

Steve Denning, formerly of the World Bank, coined the term springboard stories a while back for these small, condensed evocations, which he sees as an essential part of the armoury of the leader, tiny sparkplugs which spring people to imagination and action. (It’s by far his best book in my view, although I find that it limits the concept of storytelling in organisations to one to do with higher order communication and leadership skills and that’s not where I’m inclined to spend my time. But his categorisations and especially the appendices are rich food for thought on structuring and placing a springboard story and should not be bypassed by anyone with an interest in the subject. I’d also like to make clear that, whatever my critique, I have the utmost respect for Steve in what he has done to transform the credibility and acceptance of narrative and story in an organisational context, not least in co-founding the Golden Fleece with Madelyn Blair and others.)

What I’ve spoken of so far is a mix, about which I’m truthfully a bit uneasy of factual journalism spiced up with strong images which will draw the reader in, and the stories that inspiring leaders select for themselves from their own autobiography, and what they witness and carry with them as travellers who cross the divide between worlds.

How are we all to make sure connection between the big context, the facts, and the small stories which bring them to life are kept honest? How are we to keep the difference between analytical reporting and storytelling positive and make sure holds its integrity. In a 5 year project working with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation we worked towards, and ended up with a guide to using story as an instrument of knowledge management in an aid setting: ‘Story Guide: building bridges using narrative techniques’ At the beginning, we showed two ways of telling of the same thing. The first had been collected through a technique for sharing personal experiences collectively that allows, through emergent self-selection, the stories resonant for the community be identified by them.


The Inspiring Pot
“Bangladesh is a really impressive place… in a positive sense. I was in a village last year working in water and sanitation. We were trying to promote the use of improved latrines, but could not produce concrete slabs and rings locally for a low cost. Somebody told me to visit the latrines of a lady in the village, so I went along and said, “Can I see your latrines?” She had made a latrine out of a clay pot with the bottom cut off. Then with a potter from the area she developed a small local production of bottomless pots, and they became the latrines. Ingenious.

A few weeks later I was in another village and saw a hand pump; it was broken, just a small piece missing. So I said to the villagers, “Why don’t you repair your pump?” And they said, “Oh, we just wait for another donor to bring a new pump.” So I said, “Why don’t you visit the lady in the village over there? She finds ways of getting things done for herself.”

Perhaps 30 personal stories of experiences in the field had been shared (in repeated rounds in smaller groups) and then people had selected the most resonant for them, bringing it down to 3 stories which held collective meaning. These were retold to the whole room, and recorded word for word (in this case, frantic typing, normally with a small Olympus or mini disc)

A while later, when we were trying to convey what the written conventions of organisational reporting do to shrivel and spoil raw materials, I rewrote this as


Lessons learned from fieldwork in Bangladesh

“In our evaluation of a project in Bangladesh we noted a wide variance in the competence of individual villages to develop sustainable and effective solutions to problems encountered, for example in replacing broken parts or developing low cost products for example new latrines. The lessons to be learned from this evaluation are that we should:

* work against over-dependence on donors;
* note and encourage entrepreneurial approaches to problems;
* identify existing and repeatable good practices;
* build and strengthen communication between villages to assist cross-fertilization of ideas at the grassroots level.”

I always meant this to be tongue in cheek: an ironic way to make an important point. And we’ve used the comparison a lot to engage people with the subject. It always works. But I’ve come to see that both ways of conveying the material work well. Jacques actual story, recorded by us, is a terrific illustration of the dependence that can develop on aid workers and the helplessness of those provided for. But the duller, less illuminating translation into report-speak also acts as a bridge, a way to summarise and abstract and create a way to compare this with other illuminations to find common patterns. It’s both/and not either/or.

Coming back to electricity and it’s lack. This has come up for me in respect of another challenge, which we noticed acutely for the first time when running a story competition for the Islamic Development Bank. The competition, ‘Voices from the Field’ invited IDBers (‘IDaBers’, those who work for this impressive development bank) to submit true stories of the impact of the Bank on its beneficiaries. How to set the judging criteria for such a competition is a long blog for a different time, and much more besides on the process of handling such a competition. We did it pretty well, building on two previous competitions. But we still noticed a new challenge in the selection of longlisted and shortlisted winning stories. It was so much easier to respond to stories of personal journeys than those of big projects. The young girl in Bangladesh, given a grant to do vocational training who ends up running her own sewing business; the young man, given a grant, who becomes a doctor and goes home to set up a health centre. These were so much easier to tell and respond to than the big electricity and road projects which have more systemic substance.

And we found ourselves giving particular credit to those who could, somehow, convey the big projects but bring them down to the personal. One winning story, as I recall, was about an electricity project, perhaps in Sudan. The teller began with a powerful evocation of the consequences of the lack of electricity – the sweat, the dark, people dying on operating tables. And then the presence of IDB as a contributor to an infrastructure project which brings electricity is conveyed via watching a news report on television. And we move back to a personal view of what it feels like afterwards.

I raise this to bring me back round to the beginning – the marriage of narrative and analysis, huge systemic systems and their human impact in a truly representative and not a dramatising way, but one which will change the perspectives and actions of the listener or reader.

But I’d like to end in a slightly different place, which is surprise. The IDB judges surprised themselves in their judging in several ways. In judging this story, one of them said that he hadn’t expected to be moved by such a story in some ways. After all, they are common experiences for most in member countries, not much out of the norm. But in fact when he was reading the stories for the first time, there was a power cut in Jeddah, and as he lay awake slick with sweat it suddenly flashed into his mind that he had forgotten what it was like always to be in the heat and the dark. So the story re-evoked for him personally, in a powerful way, the point of why he went to work. To stop such things happening.

‘You jumped over the essential story as though it was a pool of water, and you were afraid of drowning’

One of the challenges in narrative interviewing is the defended interviewee. This, from some Sparknow materials on narrative research.

‘In any research topic, there are two overarching questions that have to be addressed: what is the object of the enquiry and how can it be enquired into.’ [Doing qualitative research differently: free association, narrative and the interview method’ Hollway, Wendy and Jefferson, Tony, Sage 2000]

Hollway and Jefferson draw examples from their Economic and Social Research Council project on ‘Gender difference, anxiety and the fear of crime.’ The authors aim is to recognise and question generalisations of fear and crime from the British Crime Survey (BSC) e.g. Are women afraid of the dark? The problem is that if you ask a woman if she is afraid of the dark, you are likely to be asking altogether the wrong question to find and in some way be able to assess her experience comparatively with those of other interviewees.

Some of the things we have learned about about how to find the essential story, rather than have people leap over it include

• be a good listener and the interviewee is a storyteller, not just a respondent to an interview question
• use open ended not closed questions, and use the questions as storytelling invitations
• avoid ‘why’ questions, they lead to intellectualisations, abstractions, disconnections (this comes from appreciative inquiry)
• seek not to be a visible asker of questions, instead to be an almost invisible, facilitating catalyst to stories – if necessary find indirect and gentle ways to pick up on gaps, omissions, hesitations and pauses to give you, as an interview pair, a chance to go deeper and find their meaning
• seek not to offer judgements, or lead, but use the subject’s ordering and language to retain their meaning frames without offering interpretations or judgements
• invite metaphor and vivid language which might deepen and enrich insight into aspects of the experience which would probably not be visible by using more traditional methods (what does fear feel like? what does pain feel like? these emotions are only accessible to the listener through metaphor and analogy)
• allow the story to emerge uninterrupted – leave it until later to follow up on facts, omissions, spellings, details which trigger curiosity
• take extensive fieldnotes

The narrative enquirer is always tussling with questions of accuracy, comparability and representativeness. How the storytellers motivations, memories and anxieties affect the telling? How do the tellers assumptions about what the listener is looking for, or about some social gap between teller and listener affect the story? How does the listeners need for coherence and patterns close their ears to the importance of fragments, trailings off, pauses and omissions?

There are particular, ironic, challenges in narrative research, in that the tendency is to recall a well rehearsed story. And a well rehearsed story or ‘whole’ episode is likely to contain drama. Indeed the insight we seek may not qualify, in the mind of the subject, as a story at all. So we need to look for gaps and hidden qualities and apparent ‘nothings’, as well as the more evident something which story-seeking questions throw up.

There is something beyond the ‘nothings’ which is the hiddens, and these may, or may not be, easy or appropriate to identify. In his book ‘The Gate of the Sun’ Elias Khoury weaves together true life stories of Lebanese refugee camps into a fictional setting. At one point, the narrator is talking to a someone in a coma and he says

‘You only spoke about one woman, and even that one you only talked about a little. Piecing the tale together and arranging or scattered sentences, I turned it into a story. But you only mentioned love incidentally. You jumped over the essential story as though it was a pool and you were afraid of drowning.’

This can happen with narrative research too. Sometimes, interviewees will jump over the essential story ‘as though it was a pool’ and the interviewer must judge whether it is appropriate to pay attention to this or not.

There is also the temptation to draw on other observations, outside the actual product of the interviews between researcher and subject. There needs to be agreement as to the degree to which inference is valid or peripheral vision – things noticed which creep beyond the scope of the specific piece of research – should be permitted.

In addition, the positioning of the researchers needs to be considered. They need to be seen as clearly kinds of episodes collected through narrative research are, in part, skewed by the assumption of an authority figure and the relationship of the subject with faceless authority figures in general. One challenge we have found in our interviewing and facilitation work is the casting of our interviewers and facilitators as witnesses, not as pushers or snoops for the mangers who generally commission us.

The challenges of developing consistent standards in this kind of approach are compounded by Sparknow’s particular leaning towards collaborative enquiry, working in partnership with untrained volunteers in the client to build a sharper provocation and a deeper set of insights, while risking a more uneven, subjective and rawer approach. We take the view that this kind of situated learning has a value in its own right. But it’s not easy to pull off.

Travelling storytellers as miniaturists.

Charlie Beckett wrote on opendemocracy yesterday on the dangers of formulaic narrative journalism, the codification of small snatched soundbites and imagebites into packaged materials whose liberal intent is not in doubt, with the consequence that we hold back from challenging the context and validity of what we are seeing, hearing and being told. He says:

“The evidence of a problem, one that crosses broadcasting boundaries, is not hard to find. Take Unreported World on Channel 4. Each week, brave young independent journalists are seen in some unpleasant part of the globe contradicting the title of the programme. From Haiti to Darfur they dodge bullets and meet up with intimidating guerrilla leaders. Their commitment and courage is evident. Sometimes they display excellent language skills and sometimes good local knowledge. But it can end up feeling like breathless travel journalism with flak-jackets because the formula becomes dominant over analysis, reflection or context. Just because the subject is Sri Lanka or children in Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t mean that it is a “progressive” or even valuable programme. By emphasising a narrative-driven structure it can become as predictable a formula as the two-minute piece on the BBC’s 10 o’clock news.”

Breathless travel jounalism with flak jackets is the unhealthy tendency of those of us who consult to organisations too: punch at the expense of considered thought and a weighing and reweighing of the fragments of evidence, narrative and metaphor which might illuminate a greater truth. Not only is it what consultants offer. They offer it because it’s what clients commission. Clients often want to commission something which will tidy things up for them, not make them messier. A former colleague once pointed me at Clifford Geertz’s Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968) in which he says, of the anthropologist’s role:

“In attempting to answer grand questions …, the anthropologist is always inclined to turn toward the concrete, the particular, the microscopic. We are the miniaturists of the social sciences, painting on Lilliputian canvases with what we take to be delicate strokes. We hope to find in the little what eludes us in the large, to stumble upon general truths while sorting through special cases.”

There isn’t time, it seems, with deadlines and budgets and the voracious cuckoo of the media to be constantly fed, to stumble on special truths while sorting through special cases. Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Storyteller’, written between the World Wars in 1936 regrets the passing of the art of storytelling:
“..the art of storytelling is coming to an end. Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is experessed. It is as if somethign that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”

He proposes that this is because experience has fallen in value, that our picture of the external and of the moral world had been damaged by the first world war, which impoverished communicable experience while unleashing floods of information;

“A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchagned but the clouds, and beneath these clouds in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile, human body.”

He goes on to draw a distinction which I’ve used repeatedly between the storytellers who are travellers and those who are stayers:

“people imagine the storyteller as someone who comes from afar. But they enjoy no less listening to the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions.”

But what we often have is a passing journalist or aid worker listening to the man who has stayed at home and the apparently interesting bits (told no doubt through an interpreter, perhaps in a workshop even) or even been seduced into carrying a story performed only for his benefit, as those who stay at home and need aid from afar find ways to couch their stories so as to get attention and aid. There is a kind of unhealthy complicity here between the original tellers and those who travel with the stories and put them to work and this can often turn into the misappropriation of stories, turning them into externalised objects constructed without proper thought. I’m reminded of a brief moment in ‘The Reporter’, a play just on at the National Theatre, by Nicholas Wright, just before end of first half when the senior BBC bloke is giving a coded instruction to Jim Mossman (the journalist whose life and suicide is being investigated by himself) about what he choses to communicate to the press as the story about the death of his gay lover from an overdose:

“It is in the nature of every tragedy to be ambiguous. But ambiguity is what we can’t afford. What is essential both for you and the Corporation is to focus down these multiple contradictions into a single story that can be easily understood and soon forgotten. Now, I’ve told you the truth as it seems to me but I can’t instruct you. If the truth for you is the story of drink and shared medication and a troubled relationship with a younger man, then you must tell it like that.”

I hold that it is the complexity, ambiguity, discomfort and unease in storytelling (contextualised appropriately through facts and evidence) that is the point. It should not speed up transmission. It should slow transmission, make things messier, harder to grasp, so that the listener/viewer must absorb layers of complexity and develop his or her own judgements about how to act in the light of the experience of receiving the story. Charlie Beckett says in his article yesterday:

“And where the complexity of the story is greatest, surely new media with its ability to link and to source and to refer can provide a more attenuated, more informed and more intelligent rendition of the situation? Instead of endless headlines about icecaps melting and capital cities drowning, the internet allows a multilayered reportage of climate change, from the scientific data to the implications for each family’s household.”

Exactly so. So there are two very importantly different things going on here. One is to embrace the emergent patterns, cross linkages and complex reverberations offered by the existence of many amateur and professional authors, journalists and commentators and use these to find more intelligent renditions of of the human condition. The other is to pay a great deal more attention to our role as witnesses.

As intermediaries, interpreters, translators, witnesses, some of whom have voices which are loud and can echo round the world, we have a custodial duty to do our best to act as thoughtful miniaturists, seeking to communicate the essence of the big picture in our careful selection of the small illustrations which will illuminate it. And yes, we must use delicate strokes.

‘Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern’

From ‘His sense of exile’ by William Blake. The whole poem goes thus:

‘I am like an atom, a nothing left in darkness,
And yet I am an identitiy.

They told me that I had five senses to close me up,
And the enclosed my infinite brain into a narrow
circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss…
Till all from FLie I was obliterated and erased.

Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things
thro’ narraow chinks of his cavern.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing
would appear to man as it is, infinite.’

At the recent conference in Wrexham on Excellence in Narrative Practice
there was considerable reflection on the role of the narrative interviewer and their relationship with the interviewee. And then on what to do with the transcription and analysis of materials. This is a huge area and not an easy one. In different work on oral histories with the founding brothers of the Islamic Development Bank, lessons learned and governance of futures and horizon scanning research at Defra, enquiry into merger culture, and into the customer experience at HMRC, we’ve grappled in many different ways with the casting of the interviewer and with the analysis of resulting materials. I’ll write more on this as a subject over time, but simply wanted to record today a metaphor for the role of the enquirer/witness that struck me in one talk. The researcher described herself as feeling like an amateur archaeologist in sifting through the materials. For many old fragments of artefacts, you need to have some idea of the overall shape of what you are looking for to stand any chance of recognising it among the rubble. And all the same, you must keep an open mind and a keen eye to discern things and possibilities you may not have had in mind. So you need to be both open and closed minded in reviewing the assembled materials.

This reminds me of the end 17th point in Quaker Advices and Queries:

‘Think it possible that you may be mistaken.’