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Made up words…

“Yes, my words are made up – but then, all words are made up. Every single one. That’s part of their magic,” says John Koenig, author of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

His Dictionary takes on the task of finding words for feelings which, until now, have not been pinned down. Words like ‘nighthawk’ – “a recurring thought that only seems to strike you late at night”. ‘Gnasche’ – the intense desire to bite into the forearm of someone you love. ‘Witherwill’ – the longing to be free of responsibility. And his big hit, ‘sonder’ – “the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”.

In so doing, he joins that mighty fine tradition of making up new words for the English language – from Shakespeare through to Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. As John Koenig says, “The English language is a magnificent sponge.” Indeed, the degree to which English happily opens its arms to neologisms is one of the things that helps make it so enduring and enjoyable.

So here’s to my lovable mother tongue, and the people who continue to enrich it.

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Take this book…

‘I came across a magazine with an inscription that said: “Civilisation flourishes when men plant trees under which they themselves will never sit.” But to me it’s not only plants – putting something in somebody’s life, a young person’s life, is the same as planting a tree that you will not cut and sell during your lifetime. That has helped me a lot in my work. Sometimes the more you give, the more you get.’

So says James Barnor, on the wall at the start of his arresting Accra/London retrospective. Indeed, looking at this master photographer’s work, you can see that he gives a great deal of himself to get images that really let the personalities of his subjects shine through.

Walking homewards from the exhibition through Hyde Park, in one of those happy moments of timely connection, I came across a tree bearing books for people to freely pick:

These particular books are part of a wider network of free-book sharing, courtesy of The Book Fairies. “Take this book, read it & leave it for the next person to enjoy” says the sticker on each book.

Civilisation does indeed flourish when men plant trees under which they themselves will never sit – and when people plant books on trees for the world to enjoy.

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The one who tells the story…

There’s a Native American proverb that says “The one who tells the story rules the world”, says psychologist Dr Zoe Walkington in a brilliant BBC feature on the power of stories not only to influence or persuade us, but literally to change our minds.

People who read a couple of chapters of a story about vampires genuinely believe that their teeth are slightly longer than other people in the population. But it doesn’t stop there – if, for example, you read the word “jump”, you fire up the areas of your brain that are activated when you actually do jump.

Just goes to underline how potent stories are, and how important it is to tell your key stories as well as possible.

 

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Stay odd…

Back in the late 1990s, cheeky smoothies start-up Innocent Drinks revolutionised on-pack communication with the simply brilliant step of bringing their true character to life on the bottles and cartons destined to end up in consumers’ hands:

Rather than just contain the product or carry the logo or convey the smallprint, Innocent’s packaging sung the personality from the rooftops (and supermarket aisles). These days, characterful on-pack communication is pretty much the new norm. Take for example, “Wow no cow!” milk-alternative Oatly:

These days too, as Oatly demonstrates, there is an increasing on-pack appetite to communicate not just personality but responsibility, in line with the global sustainability megatrend.

For me, the standout company here is Oddbox. A Certified B Corporation, Oddbox regularly delivers to my door a box full of fresh fruit and veg “rescued from going to waste”. Oddbox’s boxes live and breathe their purpose and personality, summed up in their mantra “Eat Good. Do Good. Stay Odd.”:

And what’s inside the boxes is pretty good, too:

 

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Keep it fuzzy…

In her FT article exploring the need for a second kind of AI – anthropology intelligence, in addition to artificial intelligence – Gillian Tett introduced me to the  wonderful term “fuzzies”.

Coined to describe the folk with qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, analyses, fuzzies play a critical role in helping to humanise our increasingly data-driven, machine-determined world. Fuzzies temper techies’ often-too-narrow models and methodologies. They are vinyl records in a world of CDs and MP3s. With the former, you get sonic range and variability through warm, continuous waves of analogue sound (together with the odd pop and crackle). With the latter, you’re reduced to the cold precision of clinically sliced digital ones and zeroes.

Of course, just as many of us have both records and CDs in our music collections, so fuzzies and techies can complement each other in reaching decisions that are both emotionally and rationally more rounded and robust. Gillian Tett tells how the Internet Engineering Technical Forum likes to use collective humming to sense the mood of the entire group, rather than rely on simple, binary “yes-no” votes. The fuzzy, quintessentially human hum carries much more information than say, a simple show of hands.

Inspired by hard-core techies who are happy to hum, let’s all look for ways to keep it fuzzy.

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Let your pen run on…

Long before Jamie Oliver gave the world his 15-Minute Meals, back in 1948 Edouard de Pomiane published Cooking in 10 Minutes:

I happily picked up this delightful book for next to nothing in a local charity shop and found not only some super-quick meals to make, but also an appropriately bright and breezy writing style.

Edouard sets the tone brilliantly at the outset. No writer’s block for him: “My fountain pen is full of ink; I have fresh sheets of paper before me. I love my book because I am writing it for you. I feel that I need only let my pen run on and I shall make myself clear…”

And so he does – sharing a great array of easy-speedy recipes. My favourite?

MUSSELS WITH SAFFRON:

“Cook two pounds of mussels. Put them on one side. Warm their water with an ounce of butter and a little saffron. Thicken with 100 grammes of thick cream mixed with a teaspoonful of flour. Serve the mussels with the sauce separately in a sauceboat. This is a feast.”

Indeed it is, especially when you add a touch of wine to the water. (And a glass while you cook.) Enjoy, and let your pen run on.

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Encouraging stories…

Writing in the FT on the “guff” “surrounding stock markets at the moment”, Merryn Somerset Webb says “it feels as though we have reached a point in the market cycle where everyone is preferring stories to reality.”

Yet as Yuval Noah Harari points out in his seminal Sapiens, we are an essentially storytelling species. Stories are our reality.

That’s not to say that there is only ever just one story for any given event. There are many angles; many stories. Take, as Merryn Somerset Webb does, the recent far from stellar stock market debut of food delivery firm Deliveroo. Why did the shares end their first day of trading 26 per cent down? One storyline focuses on Deliveroo’s dual share structure – standard practice for tech IPOs in the US, relatively new and offputting in the UK. Another highlights environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns surrounding the gig-workers at the heart of Deliveroo’s business. My money is on Merryn Somerset Webb’s take: “busy bankers at Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan” simply “mispriced the Deliveroo deal”. Either way, it’s a matter of stories.

More than any other means, stories are how we make sense of ourselves and our world – stock markets and all. So rather than question everyone preferring stories, we should encourage everyone to tell more and better stories. Stories that not only make sense but ring true; ones that stand out and stand the test of time.

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Tell your truth beautifully…

“Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations… They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries…” So begins the only known recording of Virginia Woolf, who goes on to explore why it is so difficult “to create beauty… to tell the truth…” with the “half-a-million words all in alphabetical order” at our disposal.

Easy or not, and our current culture’s love of image notwithstanding, words are arguably our primary tool for telling the truth and creating beauty (ideally at the same time). As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says, “Humans have a special power to connect with and regulate each other: words. In my research lab, we run experiments to demonstrate this power of words. Our participants lie still in a brain scanner and listen to evocative descriptions of different situations. One is about walking into your childhood home and being smothered in hugs and smiles. Another is about awakening to your buzzing alarm clock and finding a sweet note from your significant other. As they listen, we see increased activity in brain regions that control heart rate, breathing, metabolism and the immune system. Yes, the same brain regions that process language also help to run your body budget. Words have power over your biology – your brain wiring guarantees it.”

Given the undoubted power of words, what can we do to up our chances of using them wisely and well? Virginia Woolf has some good advice at the end of her talk: “words…like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them…they like us to pause…”

So the next time you have to use one or more of those half-a-million plus wonderful words in our lovable language, take a moment. Listen for the echoes. Look for the associations. Think about what you feel. Do your best to tell your truth beautifully.

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Show feelings effectively…

Picture the scene: our hero walks down the road. Hang on a minute – ‘walks’? That’s not much help. Howabout ‘trudges’, or ‘skips’, or ‘saunters’, or ‘slouches’, or ‘rushes’, or ‘ambles’, or ‘totters’, or ‘strolls’ down the road. To tell a vivid story, choose your verbs with care.

As my daughter’s English teacher puts it so well: “Verbs show feelings effectively.” In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte drives the point home with the help of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” And in so doing, they take us with them.

For economy of style and poetic punch, verbs are your best friends. So if you want to add colour, sense, meaning and emotion to your story, resist the temptation to add adjectives or adverbs. Simply be precise with your verbs. And if you think this might be a tad limiting, take heart in knowing that there are well over 30,000 verbs in the English language. More than enough to play with. Enjoy!

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The sound I saw…

Conceived, designed, written and made by hand by master photographer Roy Decarava, The Sound I Saw brings words and images together brilliantly to tell its story. As Roy says in the introduction, “This is a book about people, about jazz, and about things… It represents pictures and words from one head and one heart.”

What a head; what a heart.  And what a hand and eye:

Through big arresting black & white images, Roy weaves words in carefully crafted lines, rather than unthinking blocks of text. Lines are broken here, indented there, always in service of the story Roy wants to tell. It’s what the great information artist Edward Tufte calls content-responsive typography in his latest book Seeing With Fresh Eyes. In this way, Roy amplifies the meaning and melody running through The Sound I Saw.

Inspired by Roy and Edward and in lieu of a new year’s resolution, here’s a new year’s tip:

write with your eyes and ears.

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Feed the good wolf…

Top of my list of recommended reads from 2020 is Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, his essentially positive and timely take on our species. A chunky science-heavy tome that has the classic page-turning qualities of a great novel, Humankind questions and debunks the Hobbesian damning of people as brutish folk only prevented from descending into violence and mayhem by a wafer-thin veneer of imposed civilisation. Rutger’s view of us is more akin to Rousseau’s noble savage. But he neither romanticises nor idealises our state. As he says upfront, “To be clear: this book is not a sermon on the fundamental goodness of people. Obviously, we are not angels. We’re complex creatures, with a good side and a not-so-good side. The question is which side to turn to…

Floating around the Internet is a parable of unknown origin. It contains what I believe is a simple but profound truth:

An old man says to his grandson: ‘There’s a fight going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant, and cowardly. The other is good – peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest, and trustworthy. These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person too.’

After a moment, the boy asks, ‘Which wolf will win?’

The old man smiles.

‘The one you feed.'”

As the old man says, we should feed the good wolf. But what do we feed it? Rutger gives us the answer further on in Humankind: “As media scientist George Gerbner summed up: ‘[whoever] tells the stories of a culture really governs human behaviour.'” Stories it is, then. But not any old stories. They must be good ones, in every sense of that word.

So as we head into a new year following a year like no other, let’s all look to feed our good wolves with a rich diet of positively good stories.

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The simple shapes of stories…

From Rags to Riches to Man in a Hole, Cinderella to Oedipus – you can draw the emotional journey of archetypal stories in a single simple line:

As Kurt Vonnegut says, “the simple shapes of stories… are beautiful.” So simple, as Kurt brilliantly shows, that you can map them out in minutes with chalk on board. And so beautiful that we keep coming back to them time after time. Kurt again, on the Man in a Hole story: “Somebody gets into trouble, gets outs of it again. People love that story. They never get sick of it.” So much so that it’s apparently the most popular storyline when it comes to Hollywood blockbusters.

So if you’re looking to write the next big movie hit, or indeed to craft a corporate story with mass appeal, you could do a lot worse than follow that down-then-up Man in a Hole trajectory. But of course, stories come in many different shapes and sizes. We’re not always looking to smash the box office.

Whatever your story, keep it simple, make it beautiful – follow your line.

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Today, we stockpile empathy…

“Today, we stockpile empathy

We supply love and good energy

We sing to each other across buildings…”

So begins Love in the Time of Coronavirus, a film made by artist Chris Ridell and poet Nikita Gill to mark National Poetry Day (yes, it’s today).

For me, every day is a good day to celebrate poetry. But if we had to pick just one it would be today, so let’s sing poetry’s praises to each other across buildings, over Zoom calls – whenever, wherever and however we can.

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Shockingly good…

Can computers enhance, or even outdo, human creativity?

According to the FT’s John Thornhill, OpenAI’s GPT-3 program has been used “to write poems, articles, comic sketches and computer code, compose guitar riffs, offer medical advice, and reimagine video games, sometimes with stunning effect.” Indeed, tech entrepreneur Arram Sabeti, who used the software to write a Raymond Chandler-style screenplay about Harry Potter, called it “shockingly good”. Technology this powerful inevitably raises ethical issues. A group of philosophers tasked with assessing GPT-3 concluded it was “unnervingly coherent and laughably mindless”. But such facility without the moral compass to match is far from funny.

As with creatives, so with computers – it’s not enough to be good at what you do, you also need to do good with what you do.

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The speech of a tiger shark…

Every time we communicate we use a tone of voice, and that tone creates a sense of character. Whether we’re talking personally or as a multibillion dollar corporate body – none of us likes to be taken the wrong way. So the task with tone is to get our true character across.

I spend a fair bit of my time with clients helping them define and use a tone that fits their character. So they can give customers, investors and other stakeholders a clear sense of who they are and why they’re different. Alongside core purpose and culture, tone is critical. A galvanising core purpose, so you know exactly where you are going and why you want to get there; a strong values-based culture, so you journey together as one through thick and thin; and the right tone, so you communicate your true self clearly and characterfully – these are the three essentials at the heart of all great businesses.

Talking of truly characterful communication, here’s a brilliant take on the power of tone, courtesy of Jayne Cortez: “The speech of a tiger shark is not like the bark of an eagle fish…”

Tiger shark, eagle fish, plain old human being, bright new business – no matter who you are: find your own voice, and use it.

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Close to music…

As close to music as I can get is how I like to write.

As Oliver Reichenstein points out, “Being fully immersed in writing is like composing and playing music while we drum up our perceptions into letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs.” In his post on Music in Writing, he shares Martin Amis’s take: “What you’re trying to do is: Be faithful to your perceptions, and transmit them as faithfully as you can… You know I just say these sentences again and again in my head, until they sound right. And there is no objective reason why they sound right. They just sound right to me. So it’s euphony, sometimes it’s harshness you want. But it’s… it’s just matching up the perception with the words… in a kind of semi-musical way.”

Beyond the sheer pleasure of listening to the melody, beat and tone of your words as you write, why write this way? Grace Nichols nails it: “The rhythm and musicality of poetry is more direct in its appeal to the human heart and spirit.” In short, musical writing is more effective.

So, write with your ears, and let your sentences sing.

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Wild for weeds…

Rough hawkbit, cat’s ear, sow thistles, tagwort, viper’s bugloss, mallows, self-heal, love-in-a-mist, wild mignonette, rosebay willowherb, creeping buttercup – AKA ‘weeds’. According to Alex Morss, research shows that these colourfully named but often overlooked plants are heavy hitters when it comes to nectar and pollen. In other words, they’re bees’ best mates, and a growing number of street botanists are bringing them to our attention through the simple act of chalking the names of our autotrophic friends wherever they find them.

As one London chalker says, “I’ll keep labelling as I go on my daily walks. I think it’s really tapped into where people are right now. Botanical chalking gives a quick blast of nature connection, as the words encourage you to look up and notice the tree above you, the leaves, the bark, the insects, the sky. And that’s all good for mental health. None of us can manage that much – living through a global pandemic is quite enough to be getting on with. But it’s brought me a great amount of joy.”

An instantly lovable offshoot of the wider growth in plant awareness and advocacy, this green-fingered graffiti is a great example of using the right words in the right way to make a difference. So long live weeds, and long live words. And a big thank you to everyone who brings the two together for our understanding and enjoyment.

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Change the ending…

In these uncertain times, simple words put together well carry much weight. Whether it is Captain Tom’s “Remember, tomorrow is a good day, tomorrow you will maybe find everything will be much better than today…”, Duke Ellington’s irrepressibly upbeat “What I do tomorrow will be the best thing I’ve ever done…”, or this gem from C.S. Lewis: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

The great thing about all these thoughts is that they never lose their relevance or power to inspire. They remain as universal and heart-warming as sunshine.

So here’s to Tom, Duke and Clive (yes, Clive). Let’s all take heart from their warmth and wisdom.

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The spinach was a famous singer…

The pretty much unstoppable rise of artificial intelligence (AI) tends to provoke various manifestations of dystopian doom and gloom. Take jobs. AI is going to steal them from us all, automating our livelihoods away with unrelenting ruthless efficiency. For the pessimistic among us, the glass is not so much half empty as bone dry.

It’s undeniable – plenty of jobs are indeed being taken over by AI. (And a fair few are being created, too. Hello, all you data scientists out there.) But what of the job of writing? Can AI replace Shakespeare? Will An Algorithm be the next Patti Smith? Shall computers pen lyrics as poetic and popular as the Beatles? The latest evidence suggests this is still a long way off. So long in fact as to be quite possibly never reachable. Advances are nevertheless being made in this direction. Researchers are currently developing AI that can turn brain activity into written text, which is pretty amazing. But as yet it is producing translations that are more surreal than accurate: “Those musicians harmonise marvellously” was decoded as “The spinach was a famous singer.” As a random generator of the wordy weird and wonderful, AI gets a big thumbs up. But it is no replacement for the brains, blood and guts of great writers crafting brilliant stories of all shades and forms. So my glass remains resolutely, happily more than half full.

Cheers.

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Living in English…

In a recent episode of Open Book, Isabel Allende touched on the long and the short of today’s storytelling:

“Literature has changed – it has become much more direct, more visual. There is less space and patience from the readers – for baroque literature, for long sentences, for very long family sagas. That was what people were reading in the 80s, but not any more. So the world has changed, literature has changed, and me too, because I live in English. In Spanish, to the say the same thing, it takes us, like, five paragraphs. Because, because we go around, beat around the bush, we are polite, we think that being too direct is rude. In English, it’s the other way around. You cannot test the person’s patience. You just go to the point immediately.”

There are certainly times when getting to the point is the priority, but I’d say that in English there is still not only room but also a fair degree of appetite to take people along with a long story. Living in English, for me, is essentially about being open to all kinds of storytelling. Long and short. Direct and less direct. Like the look and the feel of a story, the length should be led by the tale that needs to be told.

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Conscious start-up stories…

With start-ups, the FT’s Andrew Hill notes, “the temptation to storm forward and tweak your principles later is strong.” Move fast, break things, grow grow grow – leave thinking about all that core stuff till sometime later, maybe never. Yet as Mr Hill points out, it’s “better to establish strong values early”. That way, you limit the possibility of chaotic rudderless acts having disastrous consequences. You also up your chances of recruiting and retaining talented people with strong principles of their own – good responsible start-ups attract good responsible folk. Hence venture capital fund Atomico is now running “conscious scaling” workshops for founders of the companies it backs and for its investment partners.

So establishing strong values early is vital. Not only establishing them but articulating them in a clear, compelling, characterful way that everyone involved can rally around and build on.

And the great thing is, this doesn’t have to mean pressing pause on your forward motion. With the right help, you can distil and articulate your core story in synch with your early stage expansion. So your stellar growth gets you where you really want to go. Sooner, too.

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Champions keep playing…

This time last year in Barbados, I came across a mighty fine motto accompanying a court for the island’s homegrown game of road tennis:

CHAMPIONS KEEP PLAYING – both a definition and an encouragement, it’s one of those immediately getable and galvanizing phrases that stick in your head in a good way. Like all great calls to action, it not only sounds right but rings true. There’s no avoiding it – to win at anything truly worthwhile, you’ve got to put the effort in. Take for example the work rate of Liverpool Football Club’s players, who are heading for clear victory in this year’s Premier League. Last season, the Reds clocked up 4,737 sprints – more than 150 ahead of the next closest team. As Jürgen Klopp said when asked the secret of the club’s success: “No secrets, hard work.”

So Happy New Year to champions everywhere – keep playing.

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A safe space for stupidity…

On a recent trip to LA, I was held captive in a quiet corner of The Broad by William Kentridge’s brilliant Second-Hand Reading. In six or so minutes of animated words, images and music, the work takes you on a magical journey which is both substantial and light-touched, heavy-souled and uplifting. I happily watched it again and again, each time sensing something new in the looping lyrical storytelling.

In a TEDx talk, William Kentridge describes how “ideas come into the studio and meet charcoal, paper, ink…” This fluid, handmade “thinking in material” is core to his art. And so, in turn, is the task “to find the less good idea. One knows the danger of confident men with their good ideas, and the damage this does every time. Give yourself over to the logic of the material… The main idea gets pushed to the side and other things emerge from the process of working… the less good ideas… This is key in the studio – to allow a space for this to emerge… to allow the studio to be a safe space for stupidity…”

So for anyone struck dumb by the terrors of the blank page, or indeed convinced of the perfection of their opening line, take a leaf out of Mr Kentridge’s book. Start writing. Be stupid. Goof about a bit. Get your hands inky. The less good ideas will emerge, and who knows – they may well prove to be great.

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Too grand for petty bickering…

Fifty years on from the Apollo 11 Moon landing on 20th July 1969, I came across a Boy’s Own Annual produced in anticipation of this momentous event, when there was still no certainty over exactly whether or when it would happen, or indeed who would be the first to do it:

The opening piece was written by none other than Patrick Moore, the great astronomer-broadcaster – wild-eyed doyen of The Sky At Night, Attenborough of the stars:

“I am writing these words on March 12, 1969, with Apollo 9 still in orbit above the Earth. By the time that this issue of BOY’S OWN ANNUAL appears in September, 1969, the first men may have reached the Moon; I hope they have. What I propose to say now applies whether the lunar journey has been achieved or not – and whether it has been done by the Americans, the Russians or both.

Astronauts are brave men and skilful men; they are also Earthmen. They are pioneers of our race, who take their lives into their hands and plunge into the unknown. If all goes well, their journey will lead to a new spirit – the spirit of co-operation, when we stop bothering about nationalities and remember that we all belong to humanity. In a very minor way this has happened in the inhospitable continent of Antarctica, where the various national communities work together much more freely and closely than can happen in more ‘civilized’ parts of the globe. Let us hope that there will be no disputes between the men who go to the Moon; there ought not to be, because the whole concept is too grand for petty bickering.”

A hearteningly humanist blast from the past, Sir Patrick’s wise words ring loud and true in these days of insular nationalism and self-interested bickering over the big issues of our age.

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I will always remember when…

In the Serpentine Gallery a work of art by Faith Ringgold stopped me in my tracks:

Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach weaves magic with canvas and quilt, colour and words. These words:

I will always remember when the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge.

I could see our tiny rooftop with Mommy and Daddy and Mr & Mrs Honey our next door neighbors, still playing cards as if nothing was going on, and BeBe, my baby brother, laying real still on the mattress, just like I told him to, his eyes like huge flood-lights tracking me through the sky.

Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical. Laying on the roof in the night with stars and skyscraper buildings all around me made me feel rich, like I owned all that I could see. The bridge was my most prized possession.

Daddy said the George Washington Bride was the longest and most beautiful bridge in the world and that it opened in 1931 on the very day I was born. Daddy worked on the bridge hoisting cables. Since then, I’ve wanted that bridge to be mine.

Now I have claimed it. All I had to do was fly over it for it to be mine forever. I can wear it like a giant diamond necklace, or just fly over it and marvel at its sparkling beauty. I can fly, yes fly. Me, Cassie Louise Lightfoot, only eight years old and in the third grade and I can fly.

That means I am free to go wherever I want to for the rest of my life. Daddy took me to see the Union Building he is working on. He can walk on steel girders high up in the sky and not fall. They call him the cat.

But still he can’t join the Union because Granpa wasn’t a member. Well Daddy is going to own that building cause I am gonna fly over it and give it to him. Then it won’t matter that he’s not in their ole Union or whether he’s Colored or a half breed Indian like they say.

He’ll be rich and won’t have to stand on 24 story high girders and look down. He can look up at his building going up. And Mommy won’t cry all winter when Daddy goes to look for work, and doesn’t come home. And Mommy can laugh and sleep late like Mrs Honey and we can have ice cream every night for dessert.

Next I’m going to fly over the ice cream factory just to make sure we do. Tonight we’re going up to Tar Beach. Mommy is roasting peanuts and frying chicken and Daddy will bring home a watermelon. Mr and Mrs Honey will bring the beer and their old green card table. And then the stars will fall around me and I will fly to the Union Building.

I’ll take BeBe with me. He has threatened to tell Mommy and Daddy if I leave him behind. I have told him it’s very easy, anyone can fly. All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know, you’re flying among the stars.

Personal and universal, imagined and real, timeless and of its time – Tar Beach is quite simply a brilliant story. And happily, it’s one you can buy in book form.

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Smashing records on the ‘Old Cope’ track…

My local park has in recent years been steadily spruced up. The latest enhancements include renovating the clock tower, opening a small cafe and placing on the surrounding benches a series of plaques cast confidently in iron, such as this one, featuring Victorian running champ Charles Westhall:

A fine example of civic storytelling, they highlight the rich and varied history of the park.

Good to see stories helping to build stronger attachments to our public spaces.

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The necessary qualities of good business…

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I came across a “devoted band that called itself the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole bunch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

Strikes me that the qualities the Eldorado Explorers lack are the very ones that lie at the heart of what goes into good business: hardihood, audacity, courage, foresight and serious intention. These five are a handy guide and inspiration for all of us trying to do worthwhile work in the world.

Better a good business than a sordid buccaneer. Every time.

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Gardening, economics, murder…

“No matter what you’re talking about – gardening, economics, murder – you’re telling a story. Every sentence should lead to the next sentence. If you say a dull sentence, people have the right to turn off.” Wise words from one of the great storytellers of 20th century affairs, Alistair Cooke, courtesy of John Yorke’s Into the woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them.

Storytelling is sense making. And as Alistair Cooke consistently demonstrated, not least through his 2,869 Letters from America, the best storytelling is both enlightening and enjoyable.

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Debauching reason and feeling…

“Debauching reason and feeling, the stilted language of officialdom is also endemic in every nation with writing. ‘Officialese’ in its broadest sense pollutes nearly all ancient Egyptian and Mayan monumental inscriptions, as these to a large degree communicate stylistically convoluted messages about and from self-aggrandizing central powers. Today, the abuse abounds.” As Steven Roger Fischer points out in his A History of Language, business bull is ageless.

Big corporations have replaced pharaohs’ courts, but the tendency to obfuscate and mangle persists. As must our endeavours to resist.

So rather than debauch, let’s do all we can to honour, encourage, elevate and ennoble reason and feeling through the words we choose and use.

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Foolish slang…

I recently picked up a well-thumbed copy of Ward Lock & Co’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language.

Published in 1925 and priced, as it says in the introduction, “within the means of all” at 6d (about £1 in today’s money), it “sought to give the general reader and the student an up-to-date and entirely trustworthy work of reference…allowing its due weight to modernity, and omitting no word used frequently”.

Accordingly, it defines words “as tersely and briefly as possible…because to the average reader brevity often conveys clearly what wordiness obscures”. Its definition of cognac is a case in point. Aficionados may appreciate knowing that cognac has to be double-distilled in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais, but to the everyday reader (or drinker), cognac is indeed simply “France’s finest brandy”.

On slang it is similarly precise and practical. “The slang that expresses clearly what without it cannot be expressed at all [is] welcomed as the idiom of tomorrow”. “The foolish slang that merely expresses badly what classical English can convey better [is] ignored”.

Clear, concise, confident – this great little dog-eared guide is everything you could wish for from a dictionary for all. Well worth the 6d back in 1925 and an absolute bargain for me today – I’d gladly have paid £1 or so but in the event it didn’t cost me a penny.

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To go…to testify…

To the Wellcome Collection, to see an excellent exhibition on Living with Buildings. It features Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ winning work on the Doctors of the World Global Clinic. Designed to be constructed in one day by doctors and nurses in the field, the clinic is a big step on from the tents and shipping containers the international health charity usually has to turn to when providing critical medical care in often far flung places around the world.

From initial ideas…

to finished version…

…the clinic is a plywood wonder.

And Doctors of the World is a wonder, too. Formed in 1980 to help the many Vietnamese refugees who had fled the country after the Vietnam War, its aim is “to go where others will not, to testify to the intolerable, and to volunteer.” In an age when it’s increasingly fashionable and indeed good for every organisation to have a purpose, this one really strikes home and sticks in the mind. I reckon it’s that great phrase in the middle: to testify to the intolerable. Meaningful and memorable – it makes it clear that Doctors of the World not only brings help but also bears witness. A mighty fine combination.

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Something delicious…

“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story,” wrote Beatrix Potter. “You never quite know where they’ll take you.”

As the creator of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and countless other classic tales points out, stories are adventures. And like all adventures, if you don’t depart you’re never going to have one. So pick up your pen and head off across the page. Who knows where you’ll end up. Perhaps Beirut. Potentially Gallipoli. Maybe even both places at once – after all, anything’s possible in the wonderful world of stories.

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Natural brilliance…

For lovers of brilliant simplicity, a block of wood that lights up when you touch it, giving you a lovely way into your online world:

“Humans are designed to interact with nature,” says Mui Lab’s Kazunori Oki. “So we put a natural material between you and the information. So you can get a natural feeling rather than touching or talking with plastic keys.”

A great example of the ‘truly good and beautiful’, it is due to go on sale later this year. Add it to your 2019 Christmas list.