Category Archives: listening spaces

The Circumlocution Office

Circumlocution, is appropriately enough, a detour from what I set out to look for in Little Dorrit.

A small little gang of us (let’s call ourselves the Moral Compass in Finance Massive for now) has been mulling over the future of banking while we’ve been mulling our Christmas wine. What happens, let’s say, when an American investment banker is also a Dutch civil servant? Even the Evening Standard on 21st November was asking itself about the City in a new age of moral capitalism:

Frippery has been abandoned. Companies are asking serious questions about their purpose and how they relate to others. Nobody believes capitalism is dead but it has changed.

The article cites the publication that week by the John Templeton Foundation of a Templeton conversation ‘Does the free market corrode moral character?’

It seems a strange and delightful coincidence that the crashing around our ears of material and capital assumptions should have happened on the very day that the Sparknow report on the relationship between museums, libraries, archives and business in London was launched. Smashing. I was already on the lookout for what I’m broadly calling ‘resilience’ or ‘cultural substance’ strategies – not CSR to spice up brand values, which I often find to have misplaced the cultural relationships into a place in the business where they can’t do much real day to day good. The mess of human and cultural encounter which triggers some raw and uncontainable emotion is surely essential to the formation of judgement, empathy and moral compass. Of course the measurable, sharply defined, tidied up targets for mobile phone component recycling or whatever are worthwhile, but how are the people whose conversations with each other and with suppliers and clients make up the swell, the meaning, the substance of to and fro, to act from a place of soul and substance if they don’t get their hands dirty and if their hearts don’t ache from time to time? To swell the coffers, surely you need to well up from time to time? So I’d offer that cultural strategy, or resilience, should place the archive, the history, the collections and traditions which are the heritage of the place into play as provocation, a key to employee engagement, a way to create interior monologue in the people, the place and ultimately the purpose.

The banking crisis has lured me back into the dark heart of the beast I left a long time ago. I suspect, with a pretty long background in derivatives, leverage and operational risk, I might understand a bit more than most about what’s gone on. I was playing with ideas of reinsurance futures before the crash of Lloyds. I was lobbying the authorities to make a case for portfolio insurance not causing the market crashes of the late 1980’s. We most certainly had it coming. And we had it coming because of all sorts of things I might write about another time. But the point is it has come. And it’s not all a story of Greedy Bankers. It’s a story of what’s gone awry at a much more fundamental level than that.

In any case, I find myself in the situation, for the first time in 13 or 14 years, of caring that banks care for themselves and their staff and those they serve in such a way that the insert themselves back into the role in society that my uncle, who was my bank manager, had in Hove, or Windsor.

So, very strangely indeed, I find myself willing to go back into the belly of the beast I came to detest, and see whether there are places there that I can put to work some of what I’ve learned about how organisations line up their internal and external conversations so that both come from a coherent, authentic and embodied place.

To that end, I’ve also started reading around debt, capitalism, moral capitalism, philanthro-capitalism, organisations as orchestrations of networks – to try and find the size and shape of the black hole, find it’s edges and then look at what’s needed to fill it. And in those wanderings, am reading Little Dorrit, following on from an article in the Guardian Review by Colin Burrows about what literature owes to debt. It traces the shift in the literary coverage of debt from being a lens through which to examine society to being a metaphor, in part because the nature of debt has become so complex that it’s difficult to put it at the heart of the writing.

The separation of the financial sense of credit from its various moral and social senses is the reason debt doesn’t figure centrally in fiction today. We have fictions about financial meltdowns and sudden losses of money. There is a vast number of films and thrillers about people who owe money to their drug-dealer or to the mafia. But debt no longer functions in literature as a subject through which to explore how people and societies connect together. The climax of Martin Amis’s Money is not a debt, but a loss of credit: John Self’s Vantage card is returned to him cut up into four pieces. Money treats money as the stuff that enables Self to be selfish, but it’s about how money comes from and returns to nothing, rather than about the ways in which debts link people together.

All of which leads me to the delights of the Circumlocution Office, which has little direct bearing on this blog, but which is the best description I’ve ever come across of beaurocracy sprawling, corrosively, out of control.

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Please note, Gordon Brown. To tackle the moral compass, the resilience, of the finance sector (and of London where the sector matters so much) is to tackle only part of the problem of the abdication of personal responsibility at every level in citizenship, government and business.

It’s a ramble, not very penetrable to the passing reader, but at least it upholds my commitment to myself to go exploring and parks what I’ve been thinking about somewhere I can find it again.

2009 is going to be very very interesting indeed.

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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.

Postcard stories, the sound of silence

What a cracker of a Guardian Weekend this weekend. Two themes whose ghosts hover behind everything we do.

First, small stories, most especially those that fit on a postcard. For years, Sparknow has been playing with postcards as a way of carrying the stories at the edges of organisations back to their heart or telling tales that move from place to place. We’ve even written a paper on postcards as a way of folding organisational time and place to create new adjacencies and hold onto the spirit of the personal. Yesterday’s Guardian had an article about Michael Kimball’s life story postcards which delighted me. In it, the journalist wrote:

I can testify to what Kimball calls “the unexpected intimacy” of the Postcard Life Stories project, which includes a blog of the biographies. Recently he wrote my life story. It felt like being exposed, but also strangely satisfying; the postcard doesn’t sum up my life, but what got me to where I am now. It’s a snapshot of a moment. There’s a strong sense of hope and joy in it that, while I don’t identify with it every day, makes me feel happy when I read it.

We’ve felt that satisfaction too. Flash fiction has some of the same qualities. I’ve noticed too that posting a photo to facebook with a note on it has something of a sloppy postcard quality to it. I was ‘ere. Wish you were here. Reminiscencee work has a nice technique where you imagine a picture or a snapshot of a moment that lives with you and you seek to describe the picture to someone in such a way that they could be there too. That’s nice. No onus to tell a story. The marriage of story, with it’s plots and twists and turns and surprisings and unexpecteds with the wry smile or banality or breath taking scenery of a postcard with a meaningless message on it is an interesting thing to play with. For us it’s always been about the umbilical chord that holds the experience and ties it, however, lightly, back to the teller, while the teller invites you into a world that they’re experiencing. I’m rambling. It’s late, but I didn’t want to pass it by. Kimball doesn’t pass up anyone’s request, which I think is also a lesson in a organisational context:

I don’t want anybody to feel as if their life story isn’t interesting enough. I have found that everybody’s life story is interesting if you ask the right questions.

I think his blog will be worth a good look later this week.

In the same magazine, Sara Maitland writes of her addiction to silence.

Chosen silence can be creative and generate self-knowledge, integration and profound joy; being silenced can drive people mad.

My assumption had been that silence was monotone; that it would be very pure, very beautiful but somehow flat, undifferentiated. But the more silences I encountered, the more silent places I inhabited, the more I became aware that there were dense, interwoven strands of different silences. Silence can be calm or frightening, lonely or joyful, deep or thin. There is religious silence; a self-emptying silence, and romantic silence – what Wordsworth called the “bliss of solitude”.

The qualities she hears in silence are of course Cagean

Being silenced does drive people mad.

We come across a lot of silenced people in an organisational context. And not much silence in the thrumming of the organisational timetable and the need to be heard (even while silenced) or be disappeared from the political structures. We’ve tried to weave more a more small silences into the work that we do, or encourage silences within the telling of, and listening to, stories. Non-interruption. Room to draw breath. Moments when nothing happens. I’ve always thought that you know when you are learning a language not when you can hear the words but when you can hear where one word ends and the next begins.

That is to say, you can hear pause.

At the next Golden Fleece in Washington in April 2009, I think there’ll be some work around the silence in which story takes place, but meanwhile I’m remembering a bit of a book that Jeannine Brutschin sent me last year The Way of Council which has a lot of merit. It tells of one council meeting where the son could detect nothing going on but somehow a decision was arrived at. The father, when asked, told the son that the decision had been shaped in the unspoken stories present in the council.

We imagine that the narratives of work can be seen and heard at our peril. They must be sensed and there needs to be room for that sensing.

There needs to be silence

‘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.

The homecoming

Well, I’ve decided to come home for a bit and get settled into my own nest. I’ve discovered that blogging at Sparknow is great, but I need to meander more wildly and experiment with stuff.  So I’ll blog a kind of fortnightly letter to Spark and use this, now The Mattress Factory, for me to play in.

I’d better start by heading off to read some Bachelard to get me in the mood. Dwellings. That’s where I fancy starting. I think it’s The Mattress Factory that’s started me off. More soon.

Rejected letter to Sunday Times about Jeremy Clarkson

Complete with rejecting email and outline of my next plan of attack.

Dear Ms WardThank you for your interesting letter. We would like to have been able to publish it, but there is space in our correspondence columns for only a fraction of the letters received each week. A copy of your letter has, of course, been passed on for the information of Jeremy Clarkson and the News Review Editor.

Yours sincerely
Parin Janmohamed
Letters Editor

From: Victoria Ward [mailto:vixta@mac.com]
Sent: 21 January 2008 16:43
To: Sunday Times Letters
Subject: Mr Clarkson’s bullyboy tactics, this time with telephone number

Dear Sir,
Mr Clarkson’s views about the Arts Council cuts, expressed last Sunday, are sit very uncomfortably with me. I’m fine with him having strong views, even with him having politically incorrect views. But the distasteful, ill-informed and bigoted way in which he has chosen to express himself serves no useful purpose except to add another layer of ill-gotten gains to his already swelling coffers. And that’s really only useful to him isn’t it? It’s probably just as well that the only time we’ll see him on the underground is on posters. Otherwise he’d probably get a lively earful from a passing arty person of some kind of ethnicity which doesn’t appeal to him (or two, or three, or even some of us middle-class, middle-aged whities might join in). Oh, and perhaps we’d invite Benjamin Zephaniah along to write a poem about it.

Let me try and explain, more seriously, why this is so important to me.

Mr Clarkson is a man who could use his unreconstructed white, middle class comfy conservatism and well heeled, bully boyishness (with it’s inexplicable popularity), to engage all kinds of people, the kinds who don’t normally, in holding intelligent and lively conversation about the role of culture in a democratic society, and how this can best be supported by a mix of private and public backing. It seems a shame that all he sees fit to do is demonstrate an ugly, ill-considered and provocative ignorance.There is something here which we should be grappling with, in all it’s complexity, neither with simplistic ranting nor with the kind sentimental support for multi-culturalism which I find equally distasteful. Neither dilution through prize-days-with-no-prizes, nor polarised caricature and contempt are the answer for a democracy such as ours. Neither namby-pamby or nimby suits us.

Britain is a nation jam-packed with cultural entrepreneurship, festival and celebration expressed in the widest possible range of ways and it’s mature enough to have some pretty hard conversations about what should, and should not, be going on in the arts. We are witnessing the resurgence in all things art, (in which I include all kinds of art, music, multi-media, history and heritage, philosophies, debate, theatre, performance, events etc) as an important way to break down retrenchments and hostility associated with identity, violence and confrontation. And in more subtle, but exciting ways, there are many signs of attempts to relocate work and community in people’s lives as having some kind of cultural substance. In short, we are rediscovering meaning, and culture is a key vehicle for such rediscovery. (I should know, its a subject I’m researching at present.) In fact Mr Clarkson is proposing exactly the opposite of Mr Jenkin’s recent view in the Guardian that the British Council now take the lead in British diplomacy in all but the most politically sensitive countries. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2242835,00.html “Russia’s assault on the British Council reveals the true nature of diplomacy.” The first line says ‘Western democracies propagate their values more effectively through cultural exchange than through bullying rhetoric’ Perhaps Russia would suit Mr Clarkson better than the UK?)

By all means lets have a lively conversation about what kinds of cultural enterprise should be backed, and for whose benefit. This is not that conversation. It’s a self-opinionated, poorly researched rant by a man unqualified to offer any kind of commentary in this arena. Mr Clarkson should either get back behind the wheel and stay there, or step forward properly and use his public position and following to engage thoughtfully in this important subject and draw into it those who would not otherwise engage.

The BBC should be ashamed of having given him a platform from which to rant so ill-advisedly, and the Sunday Times should be even more ashamed of having published such an article.

Victoria Ward

So here’s what I said back:

Thanks for letting me know. I’ll put it in my blog instead then and have an unheard rant like a tree falling in the forest. I’m going to write to Mark Thomson too and have a bash at the BBC about putting the license fee towards things it’s needed for like the World Service and not wasting it on Jeremy Clarkson and Jonathon Ross. In fact I think, given the position that these figures have in society, and the salaries they command both of which far exceed political influence by any one politician, and these are salaries which we, the citizens pay for, the BBC Trust should insist on a kind of community service principle. Anybody contracted to them has an obligation to be political, with a small p and productive in engaging the politically disenfranchised in new forms of debate, across all platforms.

Good examples of this at work might be Monty Don and Jamie Oliver. Or of the BBC doing a cross platform thing on obesity.I haven’t quite worked out what I’m going to say yet, but I’m certainly going to be saying it.

‘We notice trends before anyone else’ – Chris McCabe of the Poetry Library

There’s so much I want to write about – the structure of Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, everything about Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, but above all the epilogue, cunningly inserted well before the end, in which the author blatently footnotes his sources and plagiarisms while discussing the book with the protoganist who, in some respects, knows more about what has happened to him than the author has.  It’s only a short skip to Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ which has always been one of my favourite plays, and one which determines the slowly emerging structure of my own lightly fictional work ‘Fist:  sundry items recording the breakdown and recovery of a middle-aged woman’.  Sundry items came from the shopface of an artists supply shop (now sadly defunct) I used to drive past in Highgate:  E Ploton (Sundries) Ltd.I digress.  I hope I do write about Six Characters, Lanark, Paranoid Park – they are all worth it.  

But today I want to write about poetry, and in particular the poetry library housed in London’s South Bank Centre. There are three things I want to say about poetry, to start and guide my year.  I would also like to thank Angie Dove, with whom I am ‘broken friends’ as someone once described it, for her introduction to the library.  Thanks Angie.  It was a gift I much appreciate. 

Firstly, poetry as essence.  In a recent article exalting the Poetry Library, the author, Lisa Mullen, opens with some Ogden Nash ‘Poets aren’t very useful/Because they aren;t consumeful or very produceful.’  Which goes to the heart of our current enquiry into knowledge transfer between libraries and business.  Please read ‘The Gift’ by Lewis Hyde, which says a great deal more about the collision between poetry and consume-producefulness in our society.  What is value? What’s the point?  Is the Ladies Pond on Hampstead Heath in winter any less value for money, as the Corporation and the accountants would have it, because only a handful of hardy drooping ladies mostly of a certain age or beyond, with sturdy white knickers, totter there for a frozen dip?  Or is it beautiful and of value beyond compare for exactly that reason.  That we can all hold the dream of our reddened skin as we totter from the ponds on painful feet to know that we embraced, and were held by, nature for those few moments in a way that makes our souls sing, even while our bodies scream with the pain of hands crusted in cold?

Secondly, the same extolling article in Time Out (Jan 2 – 8 2008) had Chris McCabe, acting joint librarian, saying

‘One of the privileges of working here is seeing all kinds of poetry come in…we notice trends before anyone else. For instance, there has been a real swathe of political poetry since the war in Iraq – it does interest a lot of users.  And that goes against the idea that poetry is a totally quiet and reflective activity; there are lot of poets making a noise about things that are upsetting them.’

There’s one for the futurists and horizon scanners.  Stop looking to science, pay less attention to science fiction, and start watching the poets if you want to understand what’s going on and where things are heading.  Believe me when I say I’ll be making this point as we move from the MLA work into the Defra commission to help create a governance framework and guidelines for policymakers handling horizon scanning and futures research.  More poetry for Defra I say.  We’ll find musicians and poetic writers like Richard Mabey and the late great Roger Deakin, and fiction writers like Jeanette Winterson, and pithy sharp writers like Will Self, John Lanchester, John Berger, and blockbusting writers like Michael Crichton and line them all up persuade people on all sides that beauty and provocation in finding and conveying the essence of ideas has as much to recommend it as ticking the boxes of policy essentials.  

I wrote recently in a post elsewhere that metaphor is essential is opening up new channels of communication in organisational settings – not the thudding cliches of silo, blue sky and out of the box thinking and not the dangerous appropriation of a handy but superficial label (shall we windtunnel anyone), but the narratives of possibility which draw people in to conversations they never realised they needed to have. 

Which brings me to Barrack Obama and his trouncing of Hillary Clinton in Iowa.  A glorious article in the Guardian that I’ve mislaid quotes someone as saying that you win elections in poetry and govern in prose.  And there he is, making poetry just by standing there, even before he opens his mouth.  I’m a Clinton girl myself.  I think Hillary Clinton is the thinking person’s President, but Barrack Obama will win it with poetry.