Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Now I see him, now I don’t: a May-time mystery for Christmas

I wish I could open, “on a mid-December afternoon, in a grey and grainy light...” But I can’t. It happened on one of this year’s bright May mornings.
And I wish I could say I was feeling particularly whimsical, romantic, suggestible or dreamy. But, tell the truth, in a grim mood, I was trudging to meet an erstwhile colleague to talk about my difficult relationship with a third party in another organisation, a dim-witted brute with an over-partiality for red tape and tight trousers.
So, heading towards Newgate Street, I go through the rose garden in the ruined nave of Christ Church.
On the other side of the road, a man is sitting on a low wooden stool, painting. He is in early middle age, robust and square jawed. He wears wide leather boots, the colour of fresh-shelled chestnuts, with navy trousers tucked into them; a big blue canvas shirt, a tan leather waistcoat and a black leather pillbox hat.
I cross the road. He looks up at me – piercing dark eyes – and I smile. He doesn’t.
Passing him, I glance down (as one does) at his easel. I remember thinking, “hey, that’s clever, he’s painting the church not as it is, but as it was, before the Blitz.” Firm ink lines darting up the page; a light ochre, watercolour wash between them. Above, pale blue sky and some thin clouds.
Six, perhaps eight more paces. I look over my shoulder and he’s gone. I return to the kerb and gaze down and across the street, into the church and around it. No sign of him.
Now, there are three possibilities. One is that he packed up with incredible speed – painting, easel, stool, jam jar of water, jam jar of brushes, box of paints, pens and inks – strode swiftly behind me and passed to my right, so that I missed him as I turned to my left to look back – and then I walked and went on looking the wrong way.
The second, I suppose, is that he packed up with incredible speed and jumped into a taxi.
And the third is difficult.
Sequel one, psychologically explicable: that night I dream we go for the first time to dinner with new friends. In their dining room is the painting, behind dusty glass, in a walnut frame.
“Where did you get this?”
“Been in our family for centuries.”
I unhook and turn it over. There is a faded inscription in a kind of informal copperplate: “The ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity – W.B., 1800”.
I know the quote, although I hadn’t thought of it for a long time before the dream.
Sequel two, less explicable: the following afternoon I’m walking through the beech wood on Hampstead Heath and fall into conversation with an elderly female stranger. She tells me, “do you know what I hope one day? to see the ghosts of some of the poets who came here for inspiration. Coleridge, perhaps, or Keats or Shelley – but the one I’d really like to meet is Mr Blake. Wouldn’t you?”

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Hopes going down, the real man stands revealed

I don’t know if you read the story about poor Paul Hopes?
Why do I call him poor? In three years he spent nearly £4-million on fast cars, fast girls and five-star hotels.
Big problem: it wasn’t his money. So now he’s in custody waiting to be sentenced after pleading guilty to 18 charges of theft.
Paul managed the purchase ledger at Toys ‘R’ Us in Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK, a chain whose exchequer he clearly saw as his personal plaything. His story is well told by Ben Marlow and Robert Watts in The Times.
What jumped at me was this:
The 58-year-old accountant, with greying hair and a double chin, appeared to live a life of suburban normality... “It’s all been a big surprise,” said one of his colleagues. “We just knew him as ‘Paul from finance’. He was a quiet, likeable chap. He just didn’t strike you as that sort of person. Look, in all the time I’ve worked in the same building ... getting arrested is the one memorable thing I can remember him doing.”
And why did that portrait leap out? Because of all the times that I and others whose mission is to coach and communicate with staff in various corporate enterprises have been warned off by executives who take an entirely one-dimensional view of their underlings.
You know the put-downs? “These people are accountants, so there’s no point trying to appeal to their imaginations”; “they’re in sales, time-starved, only interested in a quick fix that will open someone’s wallet”; “you’re dealing with IT people, for heaven’s sake – they’re geeks. You can’t expect them to emote or perform.”
There’s a line you can use in a session limber-up which often brings surprising answers: “everyone of us leads several lives – tell me about one of your other ones.”
And you discover the geek who writes songs and plays in a rock band, the salesperson whose vacations are cricket tours, the accountant who’s an ardent cineaste and is just now shooting an amateur movie.
My point being that one reason communication and coaching fail is that its clients are often treated as functions rather than people. Find a route into the whole human being and they blaze up like logs pushed together in a fire.
Paul Valéry, who was a poet, wrote: “If the logician could never be other than a logician, he would not, and could not, be a logician. If the poet were never anything but a poet... he would leave no poetic traces behind him. I believe in all sincerity that if each man were not able to live a number of lives besides his own, he would not be able to live his own life.”
So if an accountant could never be other than an accountant, he would go mad. Or take the journey Paul Hopes took through the high life and into the slammer.
Next week, for Christmas, a ghost story. Well, probably not – you decide when you read it.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

White City, Forbidden City: how we tried to help the Beeb and got swatted

I fear I may be turning into an avatar of Gabriel Betteredge, the venerable house steward in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone who has an eccentric dependency on Robinson Crusoe.
“When my spirits are bad – Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice – Robinson Crusoe. In past times, when my wife plagued me; in present times, when I have had a drop too much – Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.”
In my case, the oracle is an Oscar-winning documentary called The Fog of War, which has become for me and its other students a significant educational resource.
The film, made in 2003 when its protagonist was 85, is subtitled “eleven lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara”, and if you want to know briefly what the lessons were, I’ve précised them into a short slide-show.
In a way, the doc is a factual version of Dr Strangelove. McNamara, the once-vilified Secretary of State to J F Kennedy and L B Johnson, had grandstand places for the fire- and nuclear-bombing of Japan, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam war. He delivered this extended, superbly-illustrated, autobiographical monologue six years before he died, and for my money his wisdom knocks old Sun Tzu (specialist subject, the b******* obvious) into a coolie hat.
So there I was, on Saturday night, glass of red at my side, revisiting The Fog of War while the rest of the family were rapt by Strictly Come Cowelling.
Why? Because sometimes two separate problems rub against each other and create a solution. Problem one: I knew that there was a McNamara lesson which I’d never fully understood and been able to apply – lesson five, “proportionality should be a guideline” ; problem two: why exactly I’d been crushed and swatted aside in an encounter with the BBC.
At the centre of the BBC story is my friend and colleague Andy Drinkwater. He tells the act one and act two of it in his blog, What Now?
In essence, Andy got alarmed when senior Chinese diplomats who’d come to the UK in advance of the 2010 Shanghai Expo told him how offended and furious they were that while delegates from almost every other major media channel would be meeting them, the BBC hadn’t even bothered to reply to their invitations.
He knew that I had a veteran BBC contact who in turn had a friend high up in the Beeb’s management, and both of us felt sufficiently protective of our national broadcaster to want to find a way to warn them of the damage they were inflicting on their own reputation.
So, we wrote the email together and I sent it – and got in reply a stinging, pompous put-down, written on the assumption that we were trying to short-cut procedures for some commercial purpose, and telling us how very, very busy BBC people were, and how, if an invitation didn’t interest them, they really couldn’t be expected to acknowledge and decline it.
Woah. Lesson five: “proportionality should be a guideline”. In effect, then, the BBC is bigger and more important than China. So now I know.
By the way, it’s also worth watching The Fog of War for the moment when McNamara recalls his fiancée asking for his middle name so she can get the wedding stationery printed. It’s Strange, he tells her. Never mind, she says, give it to me anyway. No, he explains. That’s what it is. “Strange”.