Category Archives: biography

The Fallen

The Fallen was on BBC2 on Saturday night and it was privilege to watch. A tribute to British soldiers who’ve been killed in Afghanistan. The makers were almost invisible and inaudible as the brothers, sisters, parents, brothers-in-arms, commanders, wives of the fallen told their stories. Stories of individuals were spliced together with silence chronological rollcall, pieces of documentary and news, collections of shared moments of terrible grief, of funerals, the shrines left behind, the moment the news broke and so on. The smallest echo of background music tied things together, and at the end the voices and music fell silent and all you heard (and saw, then only heard) was the chipping of the stonemasons carving a memorial and that sound cut through to the very grieving of the soul.

As tributes, rituals and acts of memorial go, this was an honest testimony that reached beyond any private grief and brought the incredible acts of bravery of these young men and women right into a place where you had not choice but to listen, and look and feel, and feel fully what it means to live in this amazing, muddled democracy of our, and how we trash that privilege daily. It also showed how much we need private and collective rituals of remembrance.

I was very much reminded of Tony Parker , an oral historian who died in 1966, who gave his work and life over to making room for the voices of the marginalised and invisible. I first came across his work when I read a review of ‘May the Lord in his mercy say a prayer for Belfast’ and then tracked down everything I could, about lifers, lighthouse keepers, people who lived in a towerblock in North London. He had a way of being present and invisible and of just lightly twisting the words and shape of the stories so that there were small and shocking moments of surprise and realisation. No manipulation here, but a marriage of the best of raw voice and the honing that a storyteller can bring to it to help it be heard.

I was also reminded me of an as yet unblogged experience I had when I went to see Black Watch (which I did blog). This was Steve Mcqueen’s Queen and Country

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen, in collaboration with 136 families whose loved ones have lost their lives in Iraq, has created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each one dedicated to a deceased soldier.

\The simple brilliance of the idea of stamps as a container for remembrance, used as political statement about how little we seem able to honour our dead is something I’ve been carrying with me.

There’s a French word, aider, which we don’t but should have in English, which means to be an accomplice in something simply by witnessing it. Aiding and abetting should have that meaning. It’s the job of the teller, the artist, the author, the actor, I think, to create spaces of witnessing from which we cannot step back. The privilege of access to an audience brings with it the responsibility to engage that audience in witnessing and becoming responsible both for themselves and for what they see over which they can have some useful influence.

This is something I feel strongly and have still, frustratingly, fully to bring to bear in my own daily practice. But I will never give up trying.

‘Yes we can’

Not many of my words today, mostly Barack Obama

This is a fabulous example of using history to spring the future in leadership storytelling. It runs from 15:20 – 17:40 on the CNN Youtube. I don’t know how to extract the clip, but here also is the transcript. Just look at/listen to what he does in those 2:20 seconds. Through the eyes of one witness, a true witness, he gives us the sweep of history and of change over a century which puts the change of the next century into it’s right place. The past as a lens for the future. You can smell and touch and feel the past and the future in this speech. And look at his gorgeous Ciceronian rhetoric, simple repetition and reinforcement to grow the space of understanding, which any fule kno works every time. (I should add that it’s 345 words. 2 minute 20 seconds out of 29 minutes or so, so a bit under 10% I think, 345 words, something to bear in mind when planning your own Presidential acceptance speech, or just the story you are going to tell to your team tomorrow.)

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing – Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.” Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

Negative space, the most important knowledge space

I’ve always been interested in the shadow side of organisations – beyond tacit, that dark underbelly of unstated, often collusive, collective behaviour which informs, and glues together, the official work of the organisation.  Sometimes its a good thing, somethings it’s a seriously bad thing, and gets in the way, but is impossible to clear away. I doubt I’m saying anything about shadows, intangibles, invisibles, informals, that others have not already said.  Although I suppose I could say that without the shadow you’d not be able to see the shape of the thing.  So anyone who cares to look at an organisation without it’s shadow side is doing something like trying to look at the shape, size and colour of an object at the height of the midday sun (when we know only mad dogs and Englishman are out anyway).  

Some nice work has been done taking Jung’s ideas on shadow identity and applying them to archetypes of leadership.  Wizard, king, something, something (I forget what typical modes of leadership were chosen), each has it’s shadow side and the leader must be aware of the effects of the shadow side in order to work to best effect and chose the right people to surround him/her.That’s shadows, anyway.

More recently, I’ve become obsessed with a different but related concept which I can’t help feeling holds the key to the next round of my thinking and practice (and so, inevitably) Sparknow’s thinking and practice.And that’s negative space.  A road partly travelled but I suspect with a long hard climb ahead.It comes from the idea that, in art, the space around the object is where attention needs to be for the artist.   It’s easier to draw the spaces round a hand, a leaf, a chair a tree, and allow the object to emerge from attention to the negative spaces.  Henry Moore said something like ‘the hole holds more meaning than the material surrounding it’.  A window frames a view and makes sense of it (which isn’t quite negative space but is about looking through rather than at.)

My tiny, but growing and excitable hunch, is that in this germ of an idea is a huge truth.  We’re stumbling across it already by seeing knowledge workers as navigators – people through whom you find access; by making a shape of someone by what they google or what they recommend on Amazon; cookie trails allow us to trace the outline of a person without ever having to see the person directly.  I think we can go one stage further and imagine, in thinking what knowledge is key operating knowledge, a two step process (with more steps to follow as I imagine it)

1.  trace the outline of a person, google-wise, or amazonishly, through social network analysis, by what they use, what they recommend,  who they consort with

2.  persuade the person then to step out of themselves and look back at the space left and then describe not what they do, but what isn’t happening now they aren’t doing it, preferably to an invisible or actual colleague who they care about, so that they want to describe the task(s) in enough detail that the other is able to carry it/them out sufficiently well for only the smallest number of organisational hiccups to occur.

This goes perfectly with two things which seem increasingly important to me from everything I see.  Both are to do with knowledge not being captured.Codified knowledge doesn’t exist.  Codified information does though.Knowledge can’t be captured, except in the most labour intensive ways and even then, like a map, the terrain is always inescapably larger and more complex than the map of it.  It’s impossible to make a map of the world which covers the world.  Or if not impossible, actually pointless since it would add nothing.  It’s the miniature form of the map as a guide which makes it portable, relevant, useful to the user.  A 1:1 scale map of the world would be useless.  Knowledge capture of the literal kind is exactly the same.  Useless.  Too big.   Compression, illumination, symbols which make useful patterns are reference points, are what is useful.

Information, guidance and reference materials can be captured, but in the end (Bruno Latour-wise) its the interaction of the agent with the knowledge-object which determines an action. More and more work is conducted in a non-linear way – not at your desk, not in a sequence, but in groups and simultaneously.  The knowledge exists in the presence of each other and of codified resources in an environment conducive to exchange (slow or fast, more or less documented, depending on your purpose.)  So the knowledge exists in a moment in time, the information which results can point to, but not replicate, the experience of that knowledge.  So knowledge is in gaps which are temporarily closed and then opened again when people disperse from a meeting, a room.  It’s a vanishing thing, leaving a more or less ghostly trace, with some embodied consequences for those who were present, and perhaps those in their networks. That’s the first thing about capture.The second is to do with the contract between organisation and individual, or between organisations, particularly in circumstances where knowledge of business processes must be retained during a move, or restructing, or merger or upheaval of any kind. 

Capture is a hierarchical, intrusive concept.  It implies minions, service, servitude.  It implies containment.  It’s entirely the wrong concept for thinking about how to retain what is needed in order to operate the business.  And it takes no account of the individual on the receiving end of the upheaval.Which is again where negative space comes in.  

An invitation to imagine themselves as vanished and see

1.  what work does not get done when they are not at work and

2. what work would need to get done by another filling their shoes

is a far more delicate and thoughtful conversation and one that can lead to the sense of knowledge as a donation.  

Firstly the indirectness of the question allows them to pay attention and describe something which sits not in the individual but in the space between them and their imaginary colleague and will allow for a much more open and trusting description.  Then also, by going through this imagining process, the individual who is up-heaved can also be invited to share something that they themselves will be a beneficiary of – they can donate what they know and also treasure it for themselves;  they can leave a legacy and take it with them.  And we know from oral history work that the process of valuing themselves expressly in ways that they perhaps haven’t before, makes them visible to themselves and others in ways they haven’t been before.

I’m almost out of time and I’ve not even referred to the thing which propelled this idea (which I’ve tried out a bit, but not found a way to communicate well yet) right up to the surface for me was Shibboleth, the exhibition at the Tate Modern.  It’s a huge crack, running apparently through the fabric of the floor in the Turbine Hall, the main exhibition hall.  And it’s astonishing.  I’ll write more soon, but here’s a short note from the Tate Modern website.Much more to follow while I try and find this idea and what it means for me.  

About

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth is the first work to intervene directly in the fabric of the Turbine Hall. Rather than fill this iconic space with a conventional sculpture or installation, Salcedo has created a subterranean chasm that stretches the length of the Turbine Hall. The concrete walls of the crevice are ruptured by a steel mesh fence, creating a tension between these elements that resist yet depend on one another. By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo dramatically shifts our perception of the Turbine Hall’s architecture, subtly subverting its claims to monumentality and grandeur. Shibboleth asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built.In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. A ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. For hundreds of years, Western ideas of progress and prosperity have been underpinned by colonial exploitation and the withdrawal of basic rights from others. Our own time, Salcedo is keen to remind us, remains defined by the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass, in Western as well as post-colonial societies.In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.Doris Salcedo was born in 1958 in Bogotá, Colombia, where she lives and works. Amonographic display of her work can be seen on Level 3 as part of the Poetry and Dream collection displays.                

‘Culture is the one thing we cannot deliberately aim at’

I see I’ve fallen silent for rather a long time. Holidays, laziness, avoidance. But most of all I’ve had in mind a blog on culture cooking and I’ve been looking for my copy of TS Eliot’s ‘Notes towards a definition of culture’ which he wrote in about 1940. I can’t find it, but googling gives me a bit of what I’m trying to look up as a starting point at least:

“For if any definite conclusions emerge from this study, one of them is surely this, that culture is the one thing we cannot deliberately aim at.”

This was brought to mind by a glorious description in Hari Kunzru’s book ‘The Impressionist’ (which starts very well and then gets a bit artsy and clever, but I’ll read his others) of a railway station in India earlyish last century:

‘The crowd on the platform at Fort Station throbs like a single body. Dirty-collared clerks, hawkers of tea and sweets, beggars, newspaper-sellers, pickpockets, raucous British Tommies all prickly heat and dirty songs, neatly dressed babus, clipped subalterns soon to be kicking the babus out of their reserved seats, displeased memsahibs leading lines of porters with trunks balanced on tehir rag-padded heads, peasant families sleeping three generations in a row using baggage for pillows,….and dining rooms – first second third and purdah, veg. and non-veg., Hindu Muslim and English all spin together….’

The scene this evokes conveys more surely than any abstract noun a kind of jostling vibrant culture. And reading it reminded me of the bit in ‘Notes towards a definition of culture’ where T S Eliot describes Englishness as cricket and strawberries, beetroot for tea and other things which now escape me.

I want to find a piece of work where the grandiose amibition of mission statement and value falls away and we work with the organisation through object, and observation and descriptions of how it is to make visible the raw fabric of the cultures (never just one) and weave together, through small stories and images, and properly condensed pithy and living description of how people want to live breathe play and work in that organisation.

People do it unofficially: they can describe with sharp and pointed insight the day to day reality of how the organisation gets work done (and often avoids getting work done), and the normally severe reality gap between those values the organisation purports to espouse and how it acts in practice. But that’s a kind of negative culture statement. The same acute witnessing could perfectly well be put to an appreciative exploration of what the organisation stands for and the cultural self-descriptions evolved from here collectively rather than imposed by the communications committee sub-committee on values.

We must stand up and fight for real words, stories and actions, imbued with the deep meaning of shared experience not the distressingly shrivelled, trivialising meaningless summary of the organisational mission statement, normally accompanied by the excruciatingly patronising values scrapbooks, tied to the threatening control of the appraisal system and to workshops through which the culture programme is ‘rolled out’ (and over people) which are either second rate and derivative or candyfloss entertainment whose impact lasts, in the coinage of Ratner, about as long as the shelf-life of a Marks and Spencer prawn sandwich. (Here surely is the pithiest and most honest culture statement ever to have changed the fortunes of a man and a company.)

We must make descriptions of what organisations are and aspire which vault over the prosaic thudding half-baked controlling ambitions of mission and mission control.

We must use poetry to engage the heart, not thump on about ‘heart values’.

It’s very important to be constantly restless in wriggling free of the strait-jacket assumptions that the designers and deliverers of culture and change programmes shove us into (and that includes me as a purveyor of such so-called products and experiences).

There must be a ceaseless toiling towards the vibrance of a lived reality.

This is not going to be easy.

I said in Sparknow’s founding essay (or at least I say about it) that we want to change the fabric of society.

I still mean it.

I must go away and gird my loins for the next battle.

Two dimensions is not enough.

“At 400ft they see a big black man and they cross the road to avoid me,” he explains. “At 200ft they cross back because they realise that I’m a professional basketball player and they want a closer look.” But recently, he says, they have come a bit closer and then crossed again. “At 50ft they recognise me as the gay bloke who just came out and then they cross back across the road again.”

This from an article in the Guardian about John Amaechi, a British Sportsman who became a big star in American basketball. The article is called ‘I’m not just that big gay bloke’

The power of this tiny extract in putting you into his experience and being able to witness (lets be truthful) yourself from the outside, is quite shocking.

I was reminded of the article posted recently on opendemocracy called ‘Mulitiplicity not long division’. I’m going to quote from the beginning and then make a couple of observations.

‘I heard a hilarious story from a big burly London taxi-driver. To please his younger daughter, he had got up very early one morning and drove all the way to Cardiff to buy her an expensive rare-breed dog. “It cost me an arm and a leg and it looks like a toy sheep. Now, of course, at the end of my shift, my wife is at work and the girls are at dancing class, I have to walk the dog. I don’t know why, the missus bought this pale pink lead with gold studs. So I’m walking along when I spot a mate driving his cab and I try and stuff the dog in my pocket because I don’t want him thinking I’m gay.”

Here I bridled a little. But this was a nice guy. Although he was one of the lads, he adored his family and clearly would do anything for them, he was able to laugh at himself and he entertained me. None of my gay friends would be seen dead walking that dog either. The wider point is that the cabbie defined himself too narrowly, drawing on the stereotypical view that you can’t share characteristics with a group you don’t belong to.

The world seems to be ruled by this kind of binary thinking. From the technology we use to terrorism, it’s the one / nought principle, the on / off switch, the yes / no question, the in / out classification or for / against challenge – which, by limiting individual identity, imagination and allegiance, creates and exacerbates social division. Those in power use it deliberately for their own advantage. The binary logic of politicised group identity means that belonging to one group equals conflict with another. As Diane Enns puts it in a new paper from the Berghof Peace Centre, we inhabit “a world in which identities are endlessly generated in binary pairs, pitted against each other.”

Now I find two things interesting here. The first is that she used a personal anecdote to punch her way into a complex subject. The anecdote (Geertzwise) is a window into a big pattern. And I’ll come back to that. But you could imagine both this and the short extract about John Amaechi being pretty good conversation starters, things which slow you down a bit, interrupt your thinking, make you see a subject in 3d, not 2d.

(A detour here. I recently went on a sculpture course, having hardly done anything with my hands in my life except type and cook. Our teacher pointed out that sculpture differs from painting in that it exists in time. Or to be successful it exists in time. You can’t just see it from one vantage point. You, the viewer, need to travel through space and time to appreciate and question it. If you can, you should touch it too. Taste the knowledge. Although that’s not where I got the name of the blog from. Another time.)

I’ll come back to the 2d 3d part. But I’d like to travel via Jim Lord’s book ‘What kind of world do you want, which I referenced once before.’ I find it a puzzling and slightly flimsy book, so I’m intrigued that I’ve referenced it twice now and thought about it quite a bit. Informed by Appreciative Inquiry, it makes well the point that complex thinking arises more readily from concrete example. p. 129

‘Here’s a simple example from the way staff at the University of Michigan prepared for a $3billion campaign. In the middle of a flip chart, we wrote the name of a gentleman who had made one of the largest commitments to the university. Then the small group offered factors and conditions that they believed had influenced that person’s decision to invest. They included even something as seemingly small as a casual comment made by the receptionist.

As we began to discover the lively interplay between all parts of the system, we created our own theory of contribution, a theory distinctive to the university’s history, culture and community,a nd to the particular individual. Sucha specific, complex, nuanced understanding stands in sharp contrast to the more usual view that contributions result from simple, generic cause-and-effect mechanism….’

So viewing things from the specific is much more likely to yield a 3d picture. It’s a banal truth of course. But why are we, in an organisational context, largely to unable to take this truth on board and use it to do work for us? I’d suggest it’s because it suits us to hide behind the binary in may of our systems and organisations. It’s safer that way. You can stay disengaged, stay in your head, not engage your heart.

This takes me to Amarya Sen and his fairly recent book ‘Identity and Violence.’ In an essay derived from the book in Slate magazine, he says

‘A person belongs to many different groups, of which a religious affiliation is only one. To see, for example, a mathematician who happens to be a Muslim by religion mainly in terms of Islamic identity would be to hide more than it reveals. Even today, when a modern mathematician at, say, MIT or Princeton invokes an “algorithm” to solve a difficult computational problem, he or she helps to commemorate the contributions of the ninth-century Muslim mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, from whose name the term algorithm is derived (the term “algebra” comes from the title of his Arabic mathematical treatise “Al Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah”). To concentrate only on Al-Khwarizmi’s Islamic identity over his identity as a mathematician would be extremely misleading, and yet he clearly was also a Muslim. Similarly, to give an automatic priority to the Islamic identity of a Muslim person in order to understand his or her role in the civil society, or in the literary world, or in creative work in arts and science, can result in profound misunderstanding.’

This in turn leads me to Christoph Maier’s work on diversity, which I first came across at a knowledge management thing at the ILO a couple of years back. I’ve been prompted by this line of enquiry to get back in touch with Christoph, because I’ve a hunch there’s a great deal in this 3d thing which we need to push into organisational conversations of all kinds. I’ll write more on that when we’ve corresponded. Meanwhile, here’s an abstract I found online about his kaleidoscope approach:

‘The author proposes a fresh perspective on diversity. The individual ceases to be simply a member of a certain nation, ethnicity, race or gender group, and becomes a multi-faceted, unique kaleidoscope – a treasure for any workgroup. Setting out from this perspective, a conceptual framework for leading diversity – the ‘leading-diversity dice’ – is developed. This framework focuses on personal behaviour and the interactions of workgroup members. It defines leading diversity as a rational, emotional and spiritual process that centres on a shared humaneness and the African concept of ‘isithunzi’.

As I recall, any person at any moment can be driven by many facets of their present and historic situations and their future aspirations. This means that the kaleidoscope of which they are made up shakes and shifts all the time. To reduce any individual to black, white, Muslim, Christian, rich, poor dehumanises and corrodes the social fabric.

I can’t quite grasp at the reasons behind the segue to my final fragment, although they must be there somewhere. But this reminds me of what Anthony Gormley says in the introduction to the booklet accompanying his current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, ‘Blind Light’

‘You could say that there are two very discrete and almost oppositional places where a sculpture belongs. One is physical: in a landscape or a room, and the other is in the imagination of the viewer, in his/her experience and memory. They are equally important and in many sense the work is there waiting – almost like a trap – for the life of the viewer to come and fill it, or inhabit it. And then once ‘capture’ the art – or its arising – inhabits him or her.’

Why do I think this is connected? I’m really not sure. Perhaps it’s something about the role of the viewer, interviewer, reader, audience, and all the back history and kaleidoscope they bring with them into any situation which means each experience is unique in both it’s simplicity and its complexity. Probably too, it takes me back to the theme, the need for 3d thinking, but in fact not just thinking. 3d experiencing with all the senses if we are to make sense of ‘the systemic swirl of forces and conditions inside and around [a] person and those closest to him.’
(Jim Lord again)

In this case in fact, certainly with Allotment II which consists of reinforced concrete 300 life-size units dervied from the dimensions of local inhabitatns of Malmo aged 1.5 – 80 years, it really is a concrete experience, not a tired metaphor. For once.

Metaphors next, I’ve a feeling. Better gird my loins.

Fiction as a place of truth

I’ve written on this before and I’m bound to write on it over and over again because it’s at the very heart of our work as narrative enquirers in an organisational context.

It comes up for me again now because of the literary festival currently going on in London which has the theme of saying the unsayable A session I missed was with Kamila Shamsie and Tahmima Anam. In an article preceding the session in the Guardian Kamila Shamsie writes of growing up in a censoring dictatorship in Pakistan, an era when the ‘absence of truth was often possible without recourse to lies.’. She writes of the thrill of the effect of Shame, by Salman Rushdie, a book about politics in Pakistan:

‘Shame was never going to attract a vast readership in Pakistan, but for me – at 10 too young to read the book – it was the first indication that fiction was a place of truth, more trustworth than the news.’

She goes on to say that fiction writers can go to places which news reporters and historians fear to tread. And all the same, the emotional truth which becomes possible through fiction is not possible without facts:

‘You need to know the contours of the world into which you are going to drop your made-up characters and their made-up lives; when people ask me which parts of my novel are based on things that really happened, I point out that I can’t make up context, only the shapes that fill it.’

Another take on the truth and fiction comes in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi. The subversive women’s book club she sets up reads first ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. Nafisi says:

‘I formulated certain general questions for them to consider, the most central of which was how these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women. We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novles provided and the closed ones we were confined to. I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that ‘readers were born free and ought to remain free’.

So for Nafisi, rather in the Chinese way, the dislocation of time and space and examination of the big stories of birth, death, love, freedom, oppression, through literature creates a freedom for the reader to see their own life through the window of another experience.

But what about another challenge of the truth – it’s relative dullness. In his brilliant book ‘Stuart, a life backwards’ Alexander Masters starts, in chapter 0, with a disappointed conversation with his subject (Stuart, Shorter: thief, hostage-taker, psycho, addict, raconteur):

‘Stuart does not like the manuscript.
Through the pale Tesco stripes of his supermarket bag I can see the wedge of my papers. Two years’ worth of interviews and literary effort.
‘What’s the matter with it?’
‘It’s bollocks boring.”

And he suggests
‘Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.’

And so that is what Masters does. Triumphantly. It is an extraordinary story. Stuart’s life backwards, and Alexander Master’s own growth and change through the challenge of grappling with both finding out this life and struggling with a way to structure and convey it. And not only that, in the background, as he learns of the bigger issues of homelessness, addiction, abuse, and the institutitions involved, an extraordinary, vibrant, informed picture grows of this whole issue of homelessness which transforms the reader’s insight. So fact, fiction, story structure, biography, autobiography all blend to convey a far greater truth than either the facts or the story on their own. An embrace of narrative and analysis.

Dave Eggers faced the same kind of issue in trying to share the story of Valentino Deng, one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan. In the Guardian Review of 26th May, there is a long, fascinating article called ‘It was just boys walking’ which details his struggle to wrestle the facts, gaps and partial recollections of his subject into a form which would engage the reader:

‘Valentino and I met up in Atlanta and San Franciso, spending days and weeks together, recording his story. We talked for hundreds of hours on the phone and sent thousands of emails back and forth…..I had been working on a book of oral hsitories from the lives of publics chool teachers in the US, and had studied different methods of storytelling. I assumed I would simply interview Valentino, straighten the narrative out a bit, ask some follow-up questions, and then assemlbe the book from his words. I even imagined for a while – much of our first year together – that I would simply be the editor of the book, not it’s author.’

But at the end of the first year Eggers realised that the material he had ‘did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaer articles already avaialbel to the world. It was clunky, spare, and full of holes.’

After huge labours and an emotional rollercoaster, Eggers finally did four things to make a window through which the truth and strength of the story could be conveyed:

1. He did source research himself, going to Sudan to fill in the gaps and increase the richness of the description
2. He wrote it as fiction

This raises some interesting issues for Thomas Jones, reviewing the book in the London Review of Books. In a genuinely favourable review, he raises some pertinent questions about authorship and ownership, which I’ll write more about another time:

‘And yet, that a story so concerned with so many different forms of dispossession should itself be subject to a ‘variety of appropriation is not unproblematic, and requires a more positive justification than mere silence. Eggers, unlike many of Achak’s American friends and benefactors, does not feature as a character in What Is the What. No doubt it was important to avoid distracting readers with anything that could be mistaken for cute metafictional trickery, one of the less interesting but more remarked-on aspects of Eggers’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a lightly fictionalised account of bringing up his younger brother after the deaths of his parents from cancer. But in What Is the What, Eggers is conspicuous by his absence from the narrative, which leaves you wondering how his name came to such solitary prominence on the cover, how the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng came to be ‘Copyright © Dave Eggers’.’

3. He used the more recent experiences of Deng, being mugged in his own home in the US by people he didn’t know as a framing device:

‘It was at this time I knew the book needed to be not only about Valentino’s expeirences in Sudan ajd the camps, but also about the many unforeseen struggles of his life in the US.’

And finally, he underpinned the structure with an ancient creation myth known in southern Sudan, which gave the book it’s final title ‘What is the What’

And then this today from Knowledge at Wharton on Michael Crichton’s new book ‘Next’. The article is called ‘A Novel on Genetic Research: It’s ‘Fiction, Except for the Parts That Aren’t’

A few extracts to get the juices rising, my bold:

‘In Next, published in November 2006, Crichton takes up genetic engineering again, this time from the vantage point of the law.

Next weaves together several storylines in order to trace the complex and confusing interplay of scientific innovation, legal loopholes, moral limits and economic opportunity.

Together, these real and imagined stories create a troubling portrait of a teeming biotech industry marred by corporate greed, legal confusion and moral uncertainty. Crichton’s is a world in which marketing executives promote the idea of using genetically modified animals to sell their products. It’s a world in which lawyers debate whether one’s body parts might actually be the highly profitable property of someone else. And it’s a world in which no one knows how to think through the biological and ethical dilemmas posed by a science that can rearrange natural boundaries at will. What people in this world are left with, in the absence of scientific and moral clarity, is the corrupting promise of unlimited economic opportunity and a legal system that is frighteningly ill-equipped to cope with the kind of ethical puzzles genetic research raises.

Crichton’s point is that as science outpaces the understanding of lawyers, judges, and government officers, our ability to maintain a coherent legal position on it is being radically compromised. And, as the examples cited above show, he has written convincingly on this point for some time. In Next, he crafts a novel around this argument as a way of painlessly developing it (a fast-paced story is always easier to follow than a complicated analysis). This might sound like cheating. And from an analytical viewpoint it does leave something to be desired. But a novel offers Crichton something nonfiction does not: It provides him with a way to help readers use their imaginations to grasp the implications of the law as i now stands

.’

it’s evident in new kinds of scientific research, futures work and horizon scanning, this kind of blend of fact and fiction, present reality and future imagined states will become a necessary form, because only through hybrid vehicles of this kind can we have the kinds of debate and be moved to the necessary actions which we need to have as a society, a nation, and beyond national, cultural and educational boundaries. It’s worth taking a look at some of the work done by Defra (and in part commissioned from Sparknow) in their Horizon Scanning and Futures unit to explore this further.

I feel strongly that all these structural devices, the blend of fact, fiction, biography, autobiography, metaphor, myth, folktale, legend, traditional stories, the reorganising of time from liner to parallel to reversed, must all be explored by us who seek to do work using story and narrative in the context of organisations, to find ways to show people themselves and others, the worlds and systems they live and work in, the differences they can make. We must not be sucked into the pointlessness of the business case study in our attempts to render our lives, and the lives of others, truthfully. I’ll just keep on coming back, over and over again, to Clifford Geertz but Clifford Geertz plus.

‘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.’

[From the introduction to Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia by Clifford Geertz, 1968]

In our narrative enquiry, we must hold onto our role as miniaturists and act as custodians who find ways to get people to see and hear and feel those tiny moments which hold huge difficult truths. And to do this we must play with new forms of representation to make sure what we make tears in the fabric that has been so cunning woven, which deludes us that the way organisations report on themselves, because apparently factual is truthful. It is not.

I’ve always liked, in this respect, the Buddhist notion of having a deep grasp of the past and taking a long view of the future in order to understand the now.