Hemingway and innovation

Further to my earlier blog on the topic of ‘Failure’ I’ve recently been re-reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

On the face of it, this is a book about a sailor whose dream of catching the biggest Marlin is sadly dashed, his failure captured by every mouthful the sharks eat of his catch, as he slowly tries to guide it back to land.

But is it really a book about failure?

It’s sad, for sure. Santiago, the fisherman and sailor, is a sad and – by the end – a distressed and fragile figure. His catch, strapped to the side of his boat, is now just a fleshless skeleton and he, surviving for days without food or water, is sick and weather-beaten. But, that skeleton – all 18 feet of it, with a “handsome, beautifully formed” tail – is itself evidence of his achievement and of the battle he fought. As the last sentence states all too clearly: he is still “dreaming about lions” and, indeed, through the boy sitting by his bedside, he has a companion through whom he can share and pass-on his experiences.

As my earlier blog stated, identifying and celebrating ‘failure’ risks privileging the notion of being wrong and being right (in the same way that ‘perfect’ is the enemy of ‘good’). Innovation and improvement are not always about getting things right or getting things wrong – there’s a learning process here and even when one feels beaten, it’s important to acknowledge achievements and to learn. And of course, one should never give up dreaming about cats!


Creativity and Leadership – five books for 2016

This is intended as an antidote to those management blogs which recommend books to read – and then come up with a list of dull management tomes. As if being a good manager or leader was all about reading other managers’ tips on how to be a good manager or leader. (To be fair, this list – which prompted this blog – is not so bad.)

Instead, how about reading some books – you know, real books – by people who challenge, interrogate and explore key concepts like ‘tenacity’ and ‘empathy’, ‘decision-making’ and ‘mental strength’, rather than talk about them in meaningless management jargon.

Here’s just a selection:

Raymond Carver’s short stories
Carver has an ability to observe and report on human tics, traits and characteristics. His short stories of mainly humdrum life in California reveal the complexities and neuroses of everyday life.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
A powerful story about a woman who escapes from an oppressive existence through extraordinary fortitude. This is a story about the dilemmas of pushing against conventions, of breaking rules, negotiating social and economic barriers – while staying loyal to one’s principles.

The Second Coming by WB Yeats
Anarchy, loss of control, a sense of foreboding. A poem about powerlessness, of fear and of hope.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
A reminder that every action has consequences. Albert Camus acknowledges this book in his L’Etranger. Brilliantly told, with a craftsman-like control of language, Cain deals with issues of transgression, guilt and justice.

A Fortunate Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr
One of my favourite books. Reflective writing and beautiful monochrome photographs provide context and commentary about the life of a doctor working in the Yorkshire moors – the travails, traumas and compassion of a life devoted to other people.


What should Gordon Brown be reading?

Gordon should probably be stock-piling a whole library of books now, given the assumption that he will have a lot of time on his hands after next Thursday.

It’s a shame really, since the last twelve years – most of which when he was Chancellor – has seen a massive growth in the public and private sector book trade, and in reading more generally. The massive increases in public sector investment in schools, universities and the arts (and libraries) has helped to liberalise reading – which, perhaps only with the hindsight brought about by the forthcoming period of cuts and austerity, will we really appreciate.  Meanwhile the private sector book trade will have benefited from the huge growth in the economy up until the recent downturn, including fantastic revenue sales of books via Amazon and more varied consumption through other on-line channels.

But before embarking on a post-6th-May reading marathon, there are one or two books he might want to make time to look at over the course of the next few days.

Shakespeare’s Henry V might help inspire him, as he goes once more “unto the breach“;  or, if he dare, he might turn to Coriolanus – whose capacity to keep fighting despite advice to the contrary, seemed endless:  even when being advised to stand down he remained determined: “do not bid me to dismiss my soldiers or [to] capitulate” (Act 5, Scene 3).

If he wants further inspiration – and informed by the debacles of recent days – he may simply turn to the poem ‘To a Bigot’ by George Essex Evans.  Reading it, he might be re-inspired – noting that there is always a “spark Divine that glows within”, even when all appears lost.

Finally, however, he will probably turn to his own favourite poem (one I have written about previously – here).  But he should aim not to do so before the early hours of 7th May….

Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard – which notes that “perhaps in this neglected spot was laid some heart once pregnant with celestial fire” – might end up, sadly and ironically, being Brown’s own political epitaph.

Politics and the art of story-telling

I feel a little sorry for David Cameron, whose appearance on the first TV Leaders’ Debate has been criticised for failing to be entirely factual in his re-telling of anecdotes used to make his political points.

OK, so his “recent” visit to a Humberside police station happened last year, and the cost of a new Lexus isn’t exactly £73,000. But does that invalidate the point he was making?

We expect our politicians to be honest – certainly;  but don’t we also want them to be instructive and inspirational.  A good communicator will always use examples, if not stories, to illustrate a point, or to bring colour to an otherwise dry message.  Dogma or political point-scoring is hardly the best way to garner support, and we should welcome politicians telling us stories and drawing on real experiences to communicate their messages.  Surely, we don’t expect those stories to be scrupulously detailed and correct.  Based on fact, yes, but true?

Of course, a carefully selected, well-told story can communicate ‘truths’ which a factually-correct account of an incident might not.  Does it really matter for instance, whether or not the Good Samaritan crossed the road to assist the person beaten and robbed by thieves?  Or whether there were five or six fish to go with the loaves which fed the starving thousands?

Not that I’m comparing Cameron to Christ, by the way.  But the comparison here will help to illustrate what the problem is in the case of Cameron.

Jesus Christ got away with his various stories because he had a close connection to the people about whom and to whom he was recounting them.  There was an understanding, an engagement, a ‘veracity of experience’, let’s call it – if not in the experience itself, then in the telling.  The best story-tellers – whether novelists or simple tale-spinners – demonstrate an acute engagement with the experience they are re-telling.  Did Defoe need to travel to a desert island to convey the daily trials and difficulties experienced by Crusoe?  No, but the language – with its laboured, methodical, attention to detail – takes us there, and gives the reader a genuine belief in the ‘veracity’ of the narrator.

Cameron’s problem is that he cannot really communicate that ‘veracity of experience’.  He appears detached from the very people he’s talking about or wanting to connect to.  His language is, inevitably, the language of a politician – and his experience feels far removed.  As the leader of the Party, he’s further away.  And, as an old Etonian from a wealthy background, the extent to which he can convey a sense of engagement and connection with ordinary people is becoming very tenuous indeed.

The telling of illuminating and insightful stories is one thing, but if Cameron is serious about demonstrating his experience of the needs and desires of ordinary people, then he needs to be a little more careful about his selection of stories and the honesty with which he tells them.

Gordon Brown’s new year reading

This is a follow-up to a post I put up just before the Labour Party Conference in September 2009. That one’s worth reading again I think: What is Gordon Brown reading?, modelled on Yann Martel’s delightful website for the Canadian PM. Like Martel, I have no aspiration to create a definitive reading list for the PM – this is, rather, a set of musings on how literature might provide some food-for-thought for an embattled Prime Minister.

Things don’t seem to have changed much for Gordon since the Conference. He’s still under pressure from all wings of the Party, and still seems vulnerable, despite Hoon and Hewitt’s failed coup.

So, where might he turn for some inspiration or some solace? Just as I recommended in September last year, I think he could do a lot worse than read Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake. A wonderfully mischievous excursion into the pleasures of taking risks, seen through the eyes of a young boy.

A much more macabre and thrilling version of this theme of risk-taking is provided by Blake, that great proponent of passion and energy, in his ‘Proverbs of Hell‘, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There’s plenty for Brown to chew on here.

“Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead” advises the narrator – I can imagine that advice being given by one particular member of Brown’s Cabinet.  Indeed, the poem appears to have other echoes of life behind the doors of Downing Street: for example, Brown has been criticised for being a ditherer, such that it might feel as if “one thought fills immensity”; on the other hand, he would rightly point out that “the hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure”.

Blake’s poem provides an array of intriguing pronouncements, and the challenge for Brown is to navigate his way through the range of voices providing instruction and advice – to know when to be ruthless (“sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”), and when to be thoughtful and restrained (“the weak in courage is strong in cunning”); when to take advice (“the thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest”), and when to ignore his advisers and, Malcolm Tucker-like, vent his anger (“the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”).

So what can Brown take from this poem?

He needs to be wise and cunning, that’s for sure. But he also needs to learn ruthlessness and ensure that his desires do not remain unacted on. Time is running out for uncertain leadership. Like the boy in Rosen’s poem, Brown needs to take his chances. Come May 6th, we might know if he has reached Heaven or Hell.

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Poetry and Economics

In among a fantastic piece of programming by the BBC this morning, was a reading of a wonderful reflection on the economic crisis of the last couple of years.

The poem, by Catherine Brogan, can be heard here (beginning at 2.40.40), or seen on YouTube here. We thought we were rich but were just digging this ditch.

The initiative by the BBC to invite a range of people to edit the Today programme has demonstrated how innovative and inventive arts-led programming can be – with PD James’s grilling interview with Mark Thompson getting most publicity, and with today’s programme by Robert Wyatt highlighting the way in which the arts can provide alternative reflections on social and economic issues.

Today and Tomorrow

I have recently been introduced to an absolutely fascinating series of pamphlets written at the end of the 1920s on the theme of ‘Today and Tomorrow’ (being re-catalogued here, as part of a major research project).  And I’ve been wondering about its modern equivalent.

Published by Kegan Paul, more than 100 pamphlets were written between 1924 and 1930, by a range of leading thinkers and commentators, addressing themselves to ‘the future of…’ their various areas of interest and investigation.  A dedicated and serious look into what the future held across a range of scientific and arts disciplines.  Imagining our future in order to better understand today.

It’s a fascinating period in our literary and cultural history, during which artists frequently took on the challenge of anticipating, projecting, or even predicting the future.

Think of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).  The self-acclaimed Futurists were addressing similar issues slightly earlier.  A period of 10-15 years during which there was an extraordinary interest in the future.

Perhaps it is not surprising that this inter-war period which saw massive changes in technology and in global politics should become transfixed by what the future held.  A mix, perhaps, of fear and excitement.

There are interesting parallels to be drawn with the history of the world over the last 10 years or so, and the next.  The fear and excitement of technological change, climate change, and the ongoing tensions in world politics.  Where is our future being foretold?  Where is our ‘Today and Tomorrow’ series being written?  Where are our modern-day equivalents of Huxley and Wells – projecting into the future in order to help think through the challenges of the present?

Initiatives such as TED provide space for discussion and debate, not unlike the Today and Tomorrow series;  but the focus of discussion rarely moves beyond the world of the known.  TV would be an ideal space to explore some of these challenges, but there appears to be more of an interest in our past (whether Andrew Marr, David Marquand, or the genuinely interesting ‘Who do you think you are?’ series) than in our future.  What of the written word?  Science Fiction does not have the mainstream acceptance that writers like Wells, Huxley and others had.  And our obsession with Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings over recent years suggests a longing for a magical other world, rather than a genuine look into the future.

Which brings me to film and, in particular, to James Cameron.  He, perhaps more than any other artist over the last decade or so, has sought to think into the future.  The first Terminator movie – though set in a contemporary LA – is played against the backdrop of a future state in which there is an ongoing battle between the machines and humans.   That future scenario is one which shapes and politicises the film’s main female character.  By implication, it’s by imagining the future that we can begin to understand and re-think our relationship to the present.  The Alien series takes on a different theme, but with Avatar, Cameron has moved back into that space which deals with the future and the present.

Avatar is about the battle between the US Army and the natives of a future, far-away land, for the exploitation of the planet’s scarce resources.  Although more obviously a product for a contemporary special effects-and-adventure-loving market, the film nonetheless takes on that ‘Today and Tomorrow’ theme.  Indeed, as in the Terminator, it’s that tension between the present and a possible future which creates a certain feeling of discomfort on which the fear and excitement in the film can be generated and sustained.

Perhaps, as The Terminator and Avatar suggest, looking into the future is too frightening a prospect to take on in anything more than mass consumption movies such as these.  But, as I read yet another newspaper article about the anticipated failure of our world leaders to strike a deal in Copenhagen, credit to Cameron that he’s willing to give it a go.

The art of management theory

A previous boss of mine once gave me, and the rest of her small team, a small book on the theory of management and organisational change which was told in the style of a long fable.  Written by two leading “marketing consultants”, the book was entitled ‘Good Luck’ and purports to be a “whimsical fable that teaches a valuable lesson:  good luck doesn’t just come your way – it’s up to you to create the conditions to bring yourself good luck”.  By choosing a book in the form of a story or fable, my boss wanted to show that she was an imaginative manager, providing a thought-provoking and creative approach to management theory.

I duly read the ‘Fable’ but found it deeply frustrating and uncreative.  Granted, fables can often be deliberately didactic and sombre in tone – but this one was just too simplistic, substituting bland assertions about organisational and personality types in place of the complexities and subtleties of human behaviour.   Rather than being stimulated by the book, I was left with a deep sense of disappointment.  Rather than being thoughtful and inspiring, the book seemed naive and unimaginative**.

My thesis is not that books on management theory cannot be stimulating and thought-provoking.  Nor am I suggesting that the quality of the art is diminished because of an intended artless message (all sorts of examples of powerful political statements come to mind – from Gullivers Travels,  to Picasso’s Guernica).

The point is not that art and management theory don’t mix.  It’s just that sometimes the most powerful understanding of change and its potential comes from the originality of art directly.

I came across this quote from Yann Martel recently which is relevant here: “The originality of fiction addresses the individuality of its reader. How that reader then acts with others—in other words, becomes political—will involve a dilution of that originality, a regard for the conventions and sensibilities of others. And that’s all right. We have to get along with others. But the cost of an artless life is that in being fed no originality, the person’s sense of individuality is eroded. Which is not only sad, but dangerous, since the citizen whose precious individuality is not nourished is more subject to the claims of demagogues and tyrants”.



** As it happens, I gave my boss a book in return – a group of short-stories by DH Lawrence, drawing her attention to ‘You Touched Me’, which tells the story of a woman whose future appears pre-destined by a mistaken ‘touch’ between herself and a male friend.  But which paints a disturbing picture of the chauvinism and sheer poverty of opportunity and choice in an early twentieth century mining community.