‘Your numberplate was singing to me’

Such a long silence.

But I am blogging now more at http://www.sparknow.net and thought I’d start back up here to figure out the distinction between the two.

Two things, then, to start me back up.

Yesterday, a run-in with the garage which has had my car for 2 weeks, an extension because it was not ready before I left for Washington.  It was due back yesterday morning.  I called Monday, and about 3 times yesterday to be told, today, Wednesday, would be the day.  This reminded me, I said, of nothing so much as my father’s joke about the soldier, who, on his way to war, drops his shoes at the cobblers.  Four years later, he returns from the front and goes to collect them.  ‘They’ll be ready next Tuesday’ says the cobbler.  Cobblers.

In any case, eventually a very helpful young man,  Chichebe – a Body Shop Adviser (always on the lookout for titles here) –  ran it home for me last night, so by way of thanks I ran him to the tube.  On the way he said ‘nice car – one of the old Alan Day courtesy cars.  Your numberplate was singing to me all day so eventually I looked it up to check.  You were lucky.  The other courtesy cars were bright yellow (gestures to front door of house as we drive past) and a kind of nasty green.’

I really liked the idea of a memory trigger ‘singing’, so I’ve been enjoying that today.

Another small sighting, most likely more for here than for the more serious blogging we sparkies must do, just came down in my bi-monthly noticeboard cull yesterday (along with the gorgeous Robert Downey Junior, and things about Mark Ravenhill’s latest work – sadly I can think of no way of getting RDJ into a blog, but I’ll do my darnedest).

“Scrunch Time”  in the Guardian Review recently put me onto Stephen Gill whose photographs and website are well worth looking at.  The series is A Series of Disappointments is a book of pictures of “betting slips…discarded in and around many betting shops (71 at the time of publicaton) in the borough of Hackney in north-east London.  Each of these papers began as hope, were shaped by loss or defeat, then cast aside. These new forms perhaps now possess a state of mind, shaped by nervous tension and grief. After these images were made, little autopsies were performed on the papers to reveal the failed bets held within. “

The variety of scrunching, folding, squashing, paper aeroplaning, rolling, twisting that is seen in each slip is poignantly emphasised by the titles (yielded from the autopsies): 

12.27 TRAP 2 £50 TO WIN

JUST BEWARD 3.30 FAKENHAM £20

OUTLAW PRINCIESS 3.05 S.HOUSE £5

LOCAL POET 2.20 £10 – REVERSE FORECAST

This is the most perfect storytelling.  Wish I’d thought of it.

Ian Sinclair is quoted, in relation to another book, as saying something which I think we might all learn from:

‘Stephen Gill has learnt this: to haunt the places that haunt him. His photo-accumulations demonstrate a tender vision factored out of experience; alert, watchful, not overeager, wary of that mendacious conceit, ‘closure’.

 

 

 

Like a Samurai’s sword

Since writing an essay on knowledge work in the construction industry, I find myself unusually alert to questions of knowledge work. Not in the narrow sense that knowledge management sees knowledge work, but in a broader sense: what, in fact, is knowledge work, how does it come about, what does one need to understand about the conditions that make it knowledge work? In fact, I think probably I’m being nudged here too, because our work on museums, libraries and archives, which will report in June. This identified two things lost to the system of work and organisation, things which need retrieving in some way. One is discipline and rigour around information and it’s handling, and the other is the fruitful downtime of the employee: those moments of wandering to the library and having the empty space to make some new, and deeper connections which put the immediate decision or piece of work into context. Or those moments, de-blackberried, uncoupled from milestones and deadlines, where someone might have a moment of new inspiration that renews the spirit and changes the lens through which the immediate task is viewed. It might be a spark of innovation, or something smaller, but no less meaningful when accumulated with other such small moments.

(A side-comment here, related, but as yet untethered and floating free, is a previous observation, in work on office space, on how the social fabric of organisations has been ripped from them with different forms of nomadic working, hotdesking, open plan, project and matrix management. New organisational systems have crushed the life out of the small repetitions of informal encounter that allow trust to ripen. (I would once have added social capital here, but I’m having trouble with the capitalist metaphors which dress knowledge management up in the language of economic value creation just to get it attention from the numbers people – surely we can be bigger of that. I don’t much like the misappropriation of the word trust either, but it’ll do for now.))

And perhaps my other impetus is that my current enquiry is into the commissioning of horizon scanning and futures (i.e. uncomfortable) research into environmental issues in a government department, and how the policymaker can be better equipped to direct, manage and assure such commissions. I’m sure this will influence where I go and what I notice for the next few months. I’ve a feeling this is quite a long intense exploration, likely to sprawl into values, craft, labour versus work, all over the place, but it might going somewhere, but for now, and to restart some kind of blogging discipline, I’m going to just list a single noticing which seem to belong under this loose working classification.

I was trying some Doris Lessing (who in a her own way I’ve quoted about the conditions for knowledge work when I wrote about her Nobel Prize winning speech and the need for the storyteller to cloak themselves in silence). Short stories, gathered in a volume called ‘The story of a non-marrying man’. The first story, ‘Out of the Fountain’ is about a diamond cutter:

‘Ephraim was a middle son, not brilliant or stupid, not good or bad. He was nothing in particular. His brothers became diamond merchants, but Ephraim was not cut out for anything immediately obvious, and so last he was apprenticed to an uncle to learn the trade of diamond cutting.

To cut a diamond perfectly is an act like a samurai’s sword thrust, or a master archers’ centred arrow. When an important diamond is shaped, a man may spend a week, or even weeks, studying it, accumulating powers of attention, memory and intuition, till he has reached that moment when he finally knows that a tap, no more, at just that point of tension in the stone will split it exactly so.’

Here’s my knowledge question for today (and in the next few days I’m going to move on to a bit of Richard Sennett, in his new thinking on craft, to Lewis Hyde’s distinction between work and labour, and to Grotowski’s description of the relationship between him and the actor, but this will do for now, from which I infer that I’m interested for now in processes of apprenticeship, of leading and following):

How many of us, in the conditions of urgent work which press hard down on us, find room to spend ‘a week, or even weeks…accumulating powers of attention, memory and intution’? Do we give ourselves permission? Are we given permission? Do we, perhaps need to start taking permission rather than wait for it to be given?

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.

Knowledge transfer of unlikely kinds

I think I must be tuned in to the unlikely meeting of worlds otherwise alien to each other. In any case, here are two offers of ‘knowledge transfer events’ which I think should get the juices flowing.

First, from Saturday’s Guardian: Freerunning goes to war as marines take tips from EZ, Livewire and Sticky

“We found some of the moves were relevant for battle,” .. “For them it is about artistic expression. For example, they will run along a wall keeping a low profile because it looks good, but we need to do the same thing in urban combat to stay safe.”

The other example that struck me over the weekend has an altogether darker underbelly. I was watching a programme about wreckers presented by Bella Bathurst who has also written a book on it. The original wreckers, who stripped wrecked ships for a living in dangerous circumstances, often leaving survivors to drown, are in fact the same families in many cases as those who are committed to the life boat cause. Same skills, different motives.

I write this, in fact, as I’m listening, in the background, to a virtual lecture by Clive Holtham about the role of artists sketch books in reflective management practice, which is another crossover moment. And then there are the blurring of boundaries between high and low culture with the popular classical raves going on for a few years now in Berlin clubs.

So all kind of knowledge is crossing all kinds of gaps, and in it’s transfer is generating new energy, commitment and ideas. This is, to me, true knowledge transfer of an unpedestrian kind. Hard to see, but inspirational when one gets a glimpse of 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.

Prose, not prozac

An article in the Guardian this Saturday by Blake Morrison talks about the reading cure – a growing trend in what’s called bibliotherapy, or using literature to help with mental, physical and emotional health.

Its a moving and thought-provoking article. Read the whole thing I’d suggest. I was particularly drawn to noticing the part about how reading poetry has calmed a woman with senile dementia and the possibility of literature to help with management of, say, arthritis pain, by drawing the mind into a different realm – just just respite but liberation can be achieved in other circumstances.

My other noticing for today came while googling an Ogden Nash quote which led me to his very funny, and salutory poem about metaphor and simile ‘Very Like a Whale’. We who revel, take heed:“And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanketafter a winter storm.Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanketof snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoeticalblanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm”

Enjoy. As they say.

‘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.