Category Archives: power

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.

‘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.

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.

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.

‘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. 

‘You don’t look at what you did before, you do the same shit all over’

The Wire.Everyone who has not yet watched The Wire should immediately go out and buy every series they can lay their hands on, then lay back and watch very slowly and patiently.  I’d probably find listening to something in French easier to follow but this is a perfect treasure of complex and extraordinary storytelling at every level.This quote comes from the third series, where McNulty (our gorgeous wild, naughty, good-hearted flawed hero) is looking back through closed murder files and is asked why. ‘You don’t look at what you did before, you do the same shit all over.’ Exactly.  When I get round to writing the book, which is, I can tell you, looming closer, that’ll be the quote on the inside cover.  I’ve much else to blog – Tony Harrison’s V, an extraordinary poem, an astonishing piece of storytelling and social commentary and an exemplar of how a poem can achieve things that no amount of Demos reports on social exclusion can come close to (and I speak as one who funded an early Demos report on social exclusion);  metaphor again – a riff starting with an Angela Carter quote and then travelling through Frances Yates’s ‘Art of Memory’ and Louise Bourgeois’s current exhibition; a salutory warning on what goes wrong when future storytelling goes bad and people mistake scenarios for predictions. But all that will have to wait for calmer moments. For now, I’ve a thing I want to note somewhere in a public arena, just to have expressed them.I have a plan for Sparknext and it’s a very good one.  I’ve been floundering without a plan, and the plan still allows for me to be mostly in mackerel time and memory time (see the last blog) – that is to say, be very present rather than constantly leaning forward breathlessly into an unlived future.Sparknow will be reconfigured to be jointly owned, and in partnership, we’ll pay attention to doing three things.  Doing, and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible through, narrative enquiries worldwide, of the kind we’re currently doing at mla.sparknow.net; Being thought leaders and practitioners in understanding knowledge work and the implications for knowledge workers, their relationship with work, with organisations and with themselves in their career journeys;Consolidating into a lean, elegant methodology, what we know about how to retain business processes when people leave or any kind of upheaval or move takes place.We know exactly where we are with the first.  We just need to do more of it in new and familiar settings.  With the second and the third, I’m very excited because I think we can bring together some old and new insights which will transfer the conversation and action spaces in these areas.  Good. Phew.   It’s only taken 10 years.   I don’t know why I’m writing so breathlessly with no pauses but there it is.  I feel more Molly Bloom than Pinter but I don’t know how to change the formatting.

 

  

The man’s labour that did the work is in the work

I’ve been meaning to blog this for a little while. A by-chance thing about construction and knowledge and ownership. Cormac McCarthy’s play ‘The stonemason’ came in a batch greedy buy from the Oxfam shop down the road a while back. I’ve not finished it, but it’s been haunting me while I’ve been looking into knowledge and construction. It’s a play about 3 generations, in which stonemasrony becomes a metaphor for spiritual wisom somehow.

BEN: So who owns the stonework that’s not paid for?
PAPAW: Well, under the law you can get a lien on the work. You can claim it, but you caint take possession of it. The man you built if or, he can take posession of it, but he caint calim it. The law dont have no answer. Where men dont have right intentions the law caint suppley em. You just at a dead end.
BEN: Then no one owns the work?
PAPAW: The man’s labor that did the work is in the work. You caint make it go away. Even if it’s paid for it’s still there. If ownership lies in the benefit to a man then the mason owns all the work he does in the world and you caint put that claim aside nor quit it and it dont make no difference whose name is on the paper.

This deeply spiritual version of work must in my view be the version that we, the privileged educated cocooned, should hold onto in our search for meaning. And encourage for the generations to come.