I met a man whose working life had been in large corporations at middle-management level. By the time he had retired, he had accumulated all the minutes of all the meetings he had ever been in. And he was hanging on to them.

“They must be good for something,” he said. Implicit in his statement was a question about the value of what he had been doing all this time. In my experience, minutes are almost redundant by the time they’re circulated. Certainly, by the next meeting they are little more than the starting point for the next set of minutes – and so on. This was an intelligent man, not lacking a life, post-retirement. Putting aside the hoarding tendency prevalent in some men of a certain age, his stash of minutes belied a serious question.

In Henry James’s long short story “In The Jungle”, a man is pondering on his life with a female companion. He feels – still – that he has been marked for greatness; that there will come a time in his life when opportunity, or some event will give meaning and purpose to the life he has so far led. It is coming. It is imminent. He is wondering why it has been so long in coming. His companion is demonstrating saintly patience, which the reader imagines has stretched down the years. He is a verbose, long-winded bore. Her response – payback perhaps for having had to listen to this stuff for so long – is that he missed it. He missed the moment – the epiphany – the illumination. It happened some time back. She saw it but he didn’t.

This is a chilling story – about how we delude ourselves; about how elusive a meaningful life can be; about missed opportunities. Well, je ne regrette rien, but did I waste my time?

What if all those minutes are indicators – not only of the meetings they record – but of what else went on, unrecorded? The morning sunlight blasting away the office monochrome with its nuclear splash. The unaccountable sense of wellbeing and happiness you experienced one afternoon, in spite of the business at hand. The awakened sense of yourself in that room on that day at that moment. Tiny epiphanies igniting all over the place. Why are they not in the minutes? Perhaps they are in between the lines. We can’t throw those away, but can we remember them? Most of us don’t have a long-suffering companion to help us pick through the details of our time spent waiting. We’re going to have to do it by ourselves.

The big events – like violence – can be sudden and resonant. The trauma of even a good, big event can echo for years to come. They are bound to appear pivotal – life-changing – volcanic and tornadic as they are. And we want them to be meaningful. We have suffered for them. They are the peaks – and the troughs – we have attained. But it is in the moments – the minutes – the small times – that lasting meaning is made and these can easily be overlooked and forgotten. They are in the fabric. They give it its colour.

There is the possibility that we can waste time. But what is waste? A desert? Our discarded stuff? A devastated industrial landscape? Shit? The wilderness? The minutes of long-gone meetings? We ought to look again – before we shred the minutes.


A World of Plunder – A World of Stuff


I used to live in Portobello – “Edinburgh’s seaside”. It is not quite a lovely stretch of beach, defined as it is by post-modern lavatories in the shape of a little Acropolis at one end, and a sewage works at the other. A beginning and an end you might say. From the prom, you can see the power station billowing titanium white clouds up to the ozone, and the amusement arcade has seen better days. Still it has its charms.

Behind the stray cats and dogs’ home which backs onto a stretch of tarmac unlikely to be walked by any tourists, somebody has imported a huge tonnage of heavy granite rocks onto the already imported sandy beach. We called this the “rock beach” in my family. These rocks – whatever their original purpose – act as a trap to all the detritus that the sea sweeps over them.

Tree trunks…

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An English Blues

Three poems that could have been written at any time during the last 18 years – which was when we moved to Scotland. That was when I started to get a continuous, if inconsistent, sense of how “English” was defined by others.

That they are being written now, a few months before the referendum on Scottish independence, arises from resentment. Resentment that the so-called choice offered to the people who live in Scotland is between “YES” and “NO”. But then politics, like business, has always claimed “the real world” for its stage, while reducing that real world to simplistic, black-and-white externalities. It gives us a democracy based on either/or, while trumpeting the availability of consumer choice for different brands of washing powder, or jam, or supermarket. Come on!

My own process – like those around me – has been more nuanced and complex. I am a poet, so I hope these poems convey some of these shades of feeling. Choice, as it stands, lies in the middle of an unholy Bermuda triangle, with Politics, Big Business and Usury Economics at each corner.

Because of that, these poems should not be construed as “yes” or “no” – only as  process. And for me, that veers between the poles of “a fresh start for freedom” and “nationalism never turns out well”. The politics of personal identity; the politics of subjective feeling; the politics of the complexity of us: where are those voices? And if we all spoke them out, rather than trying to squeeze them into one box or another, what then?

Meanwhile, the planet burns……or drowns – depending where you live, independent or not.

1. We left Scotland twice today

And all the woods were emptied – spiritless.

This is a mass migration then,

And this a song of loss.


Because one day, the Motherland is severed

And set loose.

Farewell! Goodbye!

Left standing by the roadside

No settlement in sight –

A barren moor – a clearance:

So this is it.


And our first step should follow – left, Left.


Now what?



2.David Bowie

When Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Played Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow in 1973,

What on earth were we all thinking?

Surely not that this was what aliens would look like?

Surely not that this was the future?


We were all in flight from home then –

From the parental agenda,

The begrudging gravity

Of knowing where you’re from – of not getting above.

Christ! But we were rocket propelled: aliens on Quaaludes.


Now it’s all “this land is our land”

And dun tweedy colours, and the very top values

Of belonging and co-operation,

Of peaty whisky, of unequivocal ground-wards morality.

Stay with us, David. Our politicians lack colour.


That, or our own very best aliens long ago took flight

Tired of the actualities behind this myth of nationhood;

Exhausted at fitting in,

Loving the world too hard not to fling a big arm around it

While still knowing who they were.


3. What measure for a country’s wealth?

Random oil? Thin coal?

Panned gold or traveller’s pearls?

Good health?


The land?

The landscape – tourist trail?

What can be counted, counts; for sale.

Revenue? Human capital? Those employed?

An over-investment in Bad Fat?

The broken-hearted, daft or mad, discarded; that

Un-useful town? Those un-enjoyed?


What measure measures what it’s worth –

Our nation with its tribes diversified

In creed, in tweed, in character, in need?

No one identity can blur this –

The Nationalist kiss

Re-sells us back to us

Much simplified and thus worth less.



I must have been in my own kind of outer space when they taught us this, but I was surprised to learn recently that there are only about 20 miles, as Apollo 11 flies, between us and the outer atmosphere. Space, in short. The expanding universe. A short bus journey and we’d be free of gravity. That is so local. All this time, I’ve been acclimatising myself to millions of light years and the mysteries of the unreachable universe, and it’s, so to speak, up the road.

This sense of great mysteries being just next door echoes in the ordinariness of death. Twenty years ago, one October night, my father went from a sense of personal well-being to dead, in under an hour. Another short bus ride. The time it takes to do a shop at TESCO. Saying this is not to trivialise the grief or trauma we all felt then. Only that when someone you know dies, the proximity and the everydayness of this apparently taboo mystery is suddenly brought into sharp focus. They die. You die. I die.

Death provides a bigger kind of wake-up call compared, perhaps, to intellectual illuminations about the proximity of the universe. After all, whether 20 miles, or twenty million miles, I’m not going there anytime soon, whereas Death will certainly be on my itinerary. As a younger man, before I had much experience, I took tiny incidents as wake-up calls – tripping on the pavement, dropping a cup, bumping into someone. I had a notion that conscious awareness was the ultimate goal: any lapse in attention was to miss a gateway onto eternity. In retrospect, it might have meant dyspraxia, and I probably should have been getting a life. But now that I have one – or more accurately, now that my life is filled up with the lives of others – tripping over school bags, crockery flying from my hands, bumping into whoever’s in my way is de rigeur most mornings, in the rush to meet the school bus and make it to work on time. “Obstacles” is how I consider them nowadays. Not opportunities.

However, it is where notions of awareness and the great mysteries intersect that provides me currently with my biggest wake-up call. Death after all is what happens to others. Once it happens to you, it’s the one call you won’t wake up from.

Here’s my question, and I apologise that asking it might re-tread the ground of previous blogs. Can God be known? That is, by you or me, rather than say, by the Pope or your rabbi or your iman?

At this point atheists will roll their eyes: it was all going so secularly well. And what agnostics know is that they don’t know, so there can be no question there. But hey, this is important. Especially in the light of the 20 mile rule – the short bus trip hypothesis. I’m writing in the belief that belief is irrelevant here.

In an earlier blog – “Talking Silence” – I quoted Thomas Merton and Sister Wendy Beckett, and the book “The Cloud of Unknowing”. Each describes a certain kind of silence as being the prerequisite – the ground – for a relationship with God. As Merton puts it

“All we need is to experience what we already possess. The whole thing boils down to giving ourselves in prayer a chance to realise that we have what we seek.”

As Esther de Waal puts it

“I recognise that the starting point is HERE. That here is where I will get the answers.”

If God is to be met in silence – in a silence that we are attentive to and aware of – how far away is that? A bus journey? 20 miles in Apollo 11? Or even closer? Here, for instance.  This phenomenon, whether we think it has to do with God or not, is available to any of us – good or bad, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Jain, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic.

And given that top mystics – experts in their field, professors of God – name it as such an encounter, we’d be arrogant to assume they were mistaken. We might disagree with their terms. But if we wanted such an encounter – an experience with God – what they describe and how they got there, would be, basically, it.

That close? you might ask. That simple? Surely world religions should come clean. It’s not about being good, or believing certain things, or singing particular songs after all. It’s not about buildings, or dogma, or accumulating karmic brownie points. And as in the lines of Randy Newman’s song “Falling in Love”

“What have I done to deserve this? – You ain’t done nothing at all.”

Or more accurately, you’ve gone quiet and you’ve listened. But this may be where the catch is.

A month of Sundays or Sabbaths, a lifetime of five times a day facing Mecca – the resolve to turn up and go through the motions – may be simpler than simply attaining that level of silence, maintaining it and remembering to do it again soon. Doing silence might be a little like going to all those anti-narrative, art-house films influenced by Jean-Luc Godard in the 70’s. That is, quite dull. Without the story, without the ritual, the smells and bells, the art and the music, this experience – our encounter with God in the silence – might be a little disappointing. Too everyday, too non-celebratory: too ordinary and accessible: not what we expected or wanted from Him they call the Creator of the Universe.

Hey! Churches, mosques, synagogues, ashrams etc! You’re back in business! Like the universe, Livingston, or your parents, God may be close, but you’re going to need a damn good reason to visit.

The empty space at the heart of the synagogue – the Holy of Holies – needs to be dressed-up a little if we are to recognise it as sacred. All our costliest materials, our most ornate architecture, our extravagant rituals, our sublimest music, are deemed necessary to announce the sacredness of empty, silent nothing.

Still. That said. This quietness inside, this silent communion, less than 20 miles distant, is still there – still ours – without all the trappings. Nothing much between us and God – except us.

William Blake saw a crowd of angels sitting in a tree on Peckham Rye. As a child, God looked in at the upstairs window of his London home and gave him a fright. If that tree were still there, you could go and see the angels today. Or you could look in another tree. God is always peering in at our windows. They won’t look like angels. He won’t look like God. He’s not even a “he”. These are just ways of speaking. We dress it up with a story, or an image. But “it” is simply there. And defining “it” without a story that can be easily ridiculed, or without tautologous abstract language, is difficult.

Only – don’t be put off. This is a wake-up call. Get on the bus. Make the journey – at least from time to time. Don’t leave God in the hands of arbiters or dissenters. They can only know as much as you anyway – although they’ll be inclined to tell you differently. As I heard Rabbi Lionel Bloom put it “Religion is about love. All the rest is commentary.” And none of us should have to do without that love.

But commentary? My wake-up call has arrived. Like an insistent comedic ring-tone, it says “Shut-up! Shut-up! Shut-up!”


singing a different song

Why do we sing songs? What do they do to us? I have spent a lifetime at it, both privately and publicly. In my head and out of it. I have entertained, bored and mystified. I have listened to zillions singing their songs at me, have joined in, resisted, plagiarised or imitated. I have borrowed their words and emotions to give shape to something in me. Or I have sneered at their inability to get anywhere close to my true feelings. I have deified some singers and rubbished others.

But as I’ve got older I have revised what I consider hip and cool, until almost everybody I’ve ever listened to has spent sometime either side of that great divide. I’d be embarrassed to tell you who is where nowadays. Suffice to say, I may have more in common with my dad than my 15 year old self could ever have imagined. And hey! – I like tunes. But then you don’t know what an admission that is for an avant-garde, anti-narrative, hip-hop daddio like me.

There’s a blackbird that sings at the bottom of our garden, most nights lately. His mate is incubating the eggs in our woodshed. I think this is a territorial matter – a means of warning off others – but the range of his repertoire – a Mozart trill, a Johnny Hodges alto line, a Cliff Richard chorus, ringtone, plainsong, lullaby, hours of it with little repetition – is inspiring. If this is protecting your mate, or defending your territory, let’s put down our weapons, and learn a few good tunes. These things have a function beyond entertainment.

As with chocolate, nobody really needs the amount of entertainment we are generating for ourselves these days. Wall to wall TV, i-pods that far from being brain implants, magazines to paper the insides of our heads with, on-line, on-demand everything, all the time – even babies only breast-feed intermittently.

If we could pin down the function for all this tumescent creativity, it might help us to sift out the necessary and essential from these tides of shite. Ooops! There I go again. Being judgemental. Differentiating. Good – bad. Hip – naff. However, the essential song – whatever it is, whoever sings it – has to be the one where function is apparent, or discernible. I’ll say no more than that. Or perhaps I’ll say “how many more Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals do we actually need?”

I am doing two gigs at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. They are both under the rubric “Singing a Different Song.”

The first is with Stephen Fischbacher, the founder of the wonderful Fischymusic, an organisation that helps children put words and music to their feelings. Stephen and I first worked together delivering a kind of musical lecture to an august group of psychologists and psychotherapists more used to explaining your feelings than expressing their own. At the end, they were all singing their hearts out. Apart, that is, from the ones sitting in petrified silence. This evening will also be participatory, exploring aspects of song and what it might be good for. Hip. And naff. Kind of “be there and be square.”

The second gig is with Neil Simpson, top accordionist, and Mike Freudenberg, champion cellist, two members of the lately retired PMO, an improvising Edinburgh orchestra. Neil and Mike were regularly sacked from it for being too melodic. At this gig they will be giving free rein to that tendency. We will be playing a set of songs I have written, selected with an eye for only those songs that are essential and necessary – at least with regard to my earlier definition. Come and see if you agree. You presence is all the participation required – once you’ve paid of course.

So what do songs do?

The question is worth asking I think, even if the answer can only come at the moment the song is sung. What does the blackbird’s virtuosity do? Listen! Listen! What does a love song do? Or a protest song? What does a blues do? They do more than the words suggest. And they only function in the moment they are being sung to you. Listen. Listen. The right song at the right time changes things. It changes you.




“Almost cut my hair, but I didn’t, and I wonder why?”

So sung Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young during the early1970’s, capturing in a few lines an ambivalence which had elbowed its way into hippy idealism around then. These lines have dogged me over the years against rapidly changing social backdrops, positioning myself as “different” or “against”, “belonging” or “conforming”, even as “keeping up” – but mostly because I hate haircuts. I know I’m not alone in this. 

Firstly, there are just too many places you can be separated from your hair. I had a dalliance with Unisex salons for a while – which seemed to mean mostly women and me. I assumed they’d be kinder: instead they were complex. To forestall the inevitable question at the hair washing font, I asked the junior where she had been for her holiday.

“Ibiza. Go anywhere nice yourself?”

“New Zealand.”

“Ooooh!! Lovely!!….Where’s that?”

Only to be passed onto a woman who tugged and stroked and bounced my then long locks so much in her search for perfect form that I went into a sort of sensual dream, awaking to wonder if I was in fact married to her and had forgotten all about it. I had no protocols for this kind of experience.

Next time, a barber’s shop with manly sporting implements in the window.

“What sports do you like?” asked my stocky scissors operative.

Immediately I knew I had made a mistake. I don’t like any sports.

“Fishing,” I said quickly re-calling a fluke experience on the previously mentioned New Zealand holiday. “Sea-fishing”.

“Great sport. Where do you go? East coast?”

“Mmmm mmm.”

“Great fishing there. What d’you catch?”

The names of all the fish in the world swam out of my head.

“Oh…er….you know….erm…big ones….erm….cod!!”

“Didn’t think you were allowed to catch them right now.”


Out of nowhere, from beneath a stone appeared the word “Flounder!!” The most appropriate verb in the circumstances.

“I just knew you were going to say that,” he said delighted.

We were really hitting it off, as he scythed my hair into the manly shape of some sort of sportsman. A fisherman. A flounder man perhaps. This bonhomie encouraged me to re-call another fishing tale which had nothing to do with my own experience – how you could fish for sea-bass in the warm outlets of the nuclear power station at Torness.

“Already part-cooked,” I said, though I hadn’t a clue. How we laughed.

Next time, a hip, black and chrome barbers run by a heavily pregnant woman and lots of young men in black with stubble on their heads and chins, and dense black tattoos on their arms. Too hip to talk, which was just fine with me, but after a few visits it lacked the tension other more embarrassing encounters provided. Obviously, if it was for some reason metaphorically painful to part with my hair, I was going to need to feel that pain concretely.

What is this all about? Everyone knows how Delilah cut Samson’s hair while he slept, and when he awoke his strength had gone. But perhaps that was from a time when long hair signified masculinity: without it he was unmanned – and I am in fact “unmanned” by the whole hairdressing experience. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were singing about a counter-cultural stance I can no longer take so seriously. But putting my hair – my appearance – an aspect of my identity – into the hands of another has often felt like a step too far.

Except perhaps when I travelled throughIndia. There was then, it seemed, only one haircut that Indian barbers across the subcontinent do, and almost all Indian men have it. It is short and neat. If hair relates to identity, this cut reduced mine – or at least my difference – by a percentage point or two. To have a haircut in common seemed to me an advantage there. I was not a hippy nor a make-believe saddhu. I got invited into people’s homes, was deemed respectable, was offered whisky not cannabis, and slipped through customs like a diplomat. It might not have been the hair. But then in another time, singled out on a bus in Spain as the only man with long hair, the police delayed the otherwise Torremelinos bound bus, while publicly rifling my bags and checking my arms for puncture and track marks. Cool. Hair counts.

Now a lot of men the generation after me have shaved heads. That’s a lot of men looking like potatoes, and it provokes me to go the other way. If only long grey hair didn’t have that “trapped in the house/no care worker visits for three months” feel to it.

Who would have thought that the fine-tuning around a man’s haircut required the same forethought and delicacy as tip-toeing through an uncharted minefield? Both have the same simple objective. Getting away with it.

Hair! Almost cut mine. But I didn’t. And I wonder why.


(Jonathan Wood has since had his hair cut.)


Organisationally You

If you were an organisation, what kind of organisation would you be? Dis? Or Mis? A multi-national or a sole trader? An institute, a company or a firm: a confederation? A corner shop or a chain store? One idea spread wide, or an inventor’s shed-worth of ideas kept close?

There have been psychological attempts to define – and even extend – our personal multi-facetted-ness. Are we each  a “community of selves” for example? Object relations theory sees us as the sum of our parts. Erich Fromm would have a family inside us. Sigmund Freud would too, but they are to be “resolved” – or dissolved in the interpretative light shone over the analyst’s couch. Carl Jung has tectonic templates latent in the collective unconscious – the great mother, the trickster, the king, the queen; Tarot cards that anyone can own a set of, until one day they own you, and you find yourself the ferocious embodiment of one or two of them. All these – and many other – different attempts to describe the many energies that play through us try to capture the phenomenon while simultaneously contributing to it. But which one is really you?

Who cares? Better to harness them all and start an organisation I say.

So; if you were an organisation, what part of you would you forefront? What would you consider your core competency? Would this be different from your capabilities? These are difficult questions –  “know thyself” questions.  It’s made harder because we’re dealing with the whole person here – not just the bit you take to work. If you consider your core competency to be that of a musician, what are you when you do the accounts? If it is as an accountant, what happens to that on your karaoke evenings?

Capability however points not to the job or role – which is ideally a fit with what you are most competent at –  but to the attributes behind it. Musicianship maybe a matter of technical ability or it maybe to do with having a good ear – being able to listen and imitate; it may be to do with expressing emotion through sound, or to do with conceptualising patterns in sound. All, some or more of these. And while “musician” may be the obvious cover-all for such an amalgam of attributes, there may be others. Counsellors listen. Mimics and linguists imitate. Mathematicians and physicists see patterns. Etc.

Similarly with accountancy. Numeracy, understanding arcane taxation systems, familiarity with obscure accountancy conventions, an orderly, logical mind, ability to curb self-expression, honesty, seeing patterns in numbers……All may find other applications. Teaching; The law; Corporate business; even Numerology or Astrology.

Your capabilities may in part be hidden from you, as you try to squeeze yourself into role. Listing your attributes, and the amalgams of those attributes that you feel most at home with  still may be at odds with what others experience of you. So this “know thyself” is a 360 degree audit – what I know I can do joined up to what they know I can do.

A key invention in organisational culture has been the facility to “incorporate” an organisation. That is, to take the principles, the ideas, the raisons d’etre – the intellectual material that defines an organisation – and “embody” it, giving it a form that is recognised in law, with a similar status to that of human beings. This has meant many things, including that the “rights” of such an incorporation can be defended against those of real human beings, with all the abuses attendant on such a guddle of thinking. It is of course a power play, more in the interests of some groups than of others.

As a human being you are already incorporated. However much of an idea you were once – even if they’ve got your genome on a memory stick somewhere – unless all that’s left of you is your brain in a vessel full of nutrients – you are incorporated. Even if you feel psychologically scattered, you are physically one thing. This is a definite advantage – however much you as an individual may feel at the mercy of the global forces embodied in multi-nationals, or confederations of nation-states. And your body – bounded by your skin – provides an essential metaphor for boundaried-ness. If I am to be an organisation which does not succumb to hubris or schizophrenia, it is important to know where I stop – and to know, in fact, when to stop.

One version of not knowing when to stop is provided by organisations or individuals that are compulsive branders. The brand originally associated with a particular product is cut loose from that product. It is made abstract so that associated ideas – like reliability, consistency and quality – can be attributed, via the brand, to almost anything. Eventually any meaning is blanched from it; it is simply a recognised brand. Some people just have to leave their mark on everything. Think Richard Branson and Virgin. Think Rupert Murdoch and News International. The Greek myth for compulsive branders is the story of King Midas. Everything he touches turns to gold. One day he touches his wife and children. It is not too big a step from here to those celebrities who sell every aspect of their lives for fame and cash. So knowing where your own “skin” interfaces with the real world, and what the impact of your “touch” could be, as you focus on and operationalise your assets – (or attributes, selves, parts or archetypal templates) – is going to be vital to your health, and no doubt the health of those around you.


And would you prefer that the organisation that is you is spread wide from a mobile, morally-relativist, intellectual centre, or that it is rooted in real time and real place limited by local conditions whether physical, psychological or social? Global companies are arguably an amalgamation of both – the overarching mission expressed in local terms. But for the individual, the question may come back down to how much reach do you want – or have? How hungry are you? How important is it to you to develop and extend your spheres of influence? What will be the impact on those you consider make up  your community?

Perhaps now it is getting clearer where this is going. The organisation that is you could be operationalised and externalised. And unless you’re a sole trader, this will involve persuading others to work for you. Many people have done that, and it is interesting to note that a significant number of organisations exist for around twenty years – a substantial portion, but only a portion, of a working life. Perhaps the correlation here is that a lot of organisations begin and end as the operationalised parts or desires of one individual. And if that’s the route you’re taking, what better way than to understand what attributes you have to hand, how best they combine, how others see you and what your limits are. These limits may be predicated on how hungry you are of course, but key to this is the balancing experience of satisfaction. Without that, obesity, anorexia or bulimia; these are all organisational possibilities as much as personal ones.

Another direction to consider is to turn back to yourself. Claiming back the notion of incorporation from the business world – reversing it in a way – suggests that to identify your parts, to re-assemble them in imaginative and creative configurations, and then to let them play out in the real world  is deeply empowering. To know which configurations are most comfortable – most “you” – while still being prepared to experiment, is to enjoy being in your own skin as you learn the art and pleasures of improvisation. It adds another dimension to the idea “self-made”. It is also to counter the dulling impact of some current organisational externalities – not quality but uniformity; not reliability but the removal of surprise; not consistency but boredom – that can infiltrate our psyches as easily as a company’s products can our homes.

Becoming organisationally you is as much an attitude as a concrete manifestation. If the organisation that you have identified yourself as is not recognisable by the brand or the product range, its success in the marketplace or its global reach, but by a change in the tone of your voice, say – or some other physical indicator that you are incorporated more fully into your own life – that is surely a successful organisation.

Of all the terms for organisations, the one I love – the only one I love – is “company”. This suggests to me – sometimes against the evidence – self-determining adults coming together by choice for a common purpose. It doesn’t evoke hierarchies, nor overly oppressive structures, nor even being led by the nose by some mission. Instead it suggests doing what I am able to do well, congruent with the person that I am, in the company of like-minded others – not clones. All that I could really want from an organisation; the facilitating environment for the operationalised, organised Self that I aspire to be. Company.

The best organisations are those which allow us to be ourselves. But it is surely important first to learn who those selves are – and certainly to learn that before someone else tells you. Organisations – (in)corporations – embody values and ideas just like families.  Yet it seems important to resist any seduction to “join up” too quickly. Else before you know it, you are using the Royal “we” to mean, not your family, but the firm. Instead organisations might recognise that their workforce offers  a temporary loan of something far subtler and more valuable than their values and mission.

We have to recognise it ourselves first though. This loan of yourself, of everything you actually are – already an organisation of some complexity – is unlikely to be properly valued otherwise.


X Factor Kings and Queens

I went to the live show put on by the X Factor finalists last week. It was the penultimate show of the tour. A matinee at Glasgow’s SECC. I’d like to excuse myself by saying I accompanied someone – which is true. But I actually went because I wanted to. Now I know that when the X Factor was on TV, all of you would have been watching documentaries or wildlife programmes. Or reading serious literature. You probably don’t even know what the X Factor is. But I was yelling at the screen “No, not him! Her! Have you got no taste?” Well there’s a good question.

At Glasgow SECC on Easter Sunday, there was a joyful abandonment of taste. Lots of Easter bunnies though. Children and adults alike had purchased electronic rabbits’ ears which sit on top of the head and pulse red-green-blue up the centre of the ear like those infra-red pictures of parts of the body. In a back room somewhere I imagine a thousand rabbits with their ears lopped off which are then stapled onto a thousand Alice bands. “At least,” I hear one rabbit saying to another, “we won’t have to listen to that.” “What?” says the other rabbit.

Besides T-shirts, posters, programmes and junk food, the other commodity that was selling well were foam rubber hands with one finger pointing. These were about six times the size of an average hand. Every time the middle aged woman sitting next to me swung her arms wide to the music, the entire stage vanished from my sight behind her monster hand. This was irritating. When she finally dropped the thing into the darkness between the seats, it cranked up a couple of notches to “very annoying”. Now every swing of this beefy woman’s arms was a clout in the face for me, unsoftened by the foam rubber. By half time, we had come to a silent understanding. I would adopt the brace position – familiar to you from those half-ignored in-flight safety demonstrations – on the out-swing, and simply enjoy that part of the concert which was free from her flailing – admittedly in a state of heightened alertness.

Still, these are merely the preliminaries. I’d come to watch the performance not the audience, surely. I don’t remember all the names of the X-Factor finalists. They are all twenty-something, and I can’t even remember my own children’s names these days. But first up was Jamie, the white guy with the Afro. His speciality is power ballads – and encouraging everyone to join in with them. “My sex is on fire” he sung, gesturing that we should sing it too. There has been much recent intellectual speculation on what this actually means, but I like to think that the song is one in a long line which begins with the naming-of-body-parts-songs that we teach to toddlers. “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes….knees and toes.” That kind of thing. Jamie whipped us up but we adults had slipped embarrassed away. “My sex is on fire” he sung again, accompanied by the sweet sound of children’s voices. It’s a far cry from “We plough the fields and scatter..” which was the closest we ever got to a fertility song at my school.

Next was Lucy from Wales. Of course everyone’s much smaller than they appear on TV – not to mention those big overhead screens at the SECC. But Lucy seemed almost waif-like, especially when she came off-stage to walk through the audience to a mini-stage mid-auditorium. A camera tracked her progress. Just in shot was her minder – a sort of shaven-headed John Prescott – who shepherded her to her destination manfully sweeping aside clamouring 9 year olds. But this mini-stage was in a trough of very low pressure indeed. As soon as she was on it, a gale blew up and Lucy’s voluminous hair and scrappy clothes billowed. Still she sung, into a wind with all the force of Hurricane Katrina, but none of the tragedy.

There has to be a host at these affairs it seems. Ours introduced himself a little late in the proceedings. If I was having trouble remembering all the Jamies and Lucies etc, he was unlikely to make a big impression. As if aware of this, he invited us all to participate in a Mexican wave. I always thought a Mexican wave had something to do with throwing up. The idea that a tsunami of sick might shortly envelop us, hurling itself off the big walls of the SECC was mildly diverting – as an idea. In fact it has nothing to do with vomit. We stood up and sat down on command, waving inbetween, and it was indeed like a human wave around and across the auditorium for absolutely no reason at all. And then he was gone and it was time for Jedward.

This phenomenon – two teenage Irish twins called John and Edward with the talent quotient of a washing machine – has swept the UK just like a tsunami, spinning every psyche it touches round and round and upside down, leaving only questions. The crowd went “Whoooooh!” It stood up. It went ballistic. The errant arm to my left was flapping in such a frenzy that I had to adopt the brace position for some time, missing their entrance entirely. And what followed I can barely describe.

Everything available was chucked into the talentless black hole that is Jedward. But nothing was ever going to fill it up. Perhaps that’s unkind. They do have bounce, and plenty of it, and surrounded by lasers and back-screen projections, suspended on wires above us, flying fox-ed back to stage, met by a giant inflatable ghost (did I mention the song was “Ghostbusters”?) and surrounded by a crew of dancers armed with water pistols (to dissolve the ghost I suppose), it all built to a crescendo of enthusiasm, with the audience – bar one – fully implicated. Strangely though, a tipping point was reached and for some of the hundreds on stage, their enthusiasm suddenly became apathy. There they were on stage hanging around with nothing much to do. At last a group I could identify with.

The sheer amount of visual and aural information, much of it disconnected and nonsensical, was almost overwhelming. But then I remembered the advice of a surly Specsavers operative as I was complaining recently that my new prescription reading glasses turned the entire world into a parallelogram. “Your brain will adjust sir,” she said curtly.

By the interval my brain had adjusted. All this input had started to seem normal. I thought about my low-stimulus sitting room with its tiny TV screen in a cottage in the country with almost no traffic noise, a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit. No wonder so many young people want to be celebrities.

Did the concert actually end, or am I still in it? I remember a heartfelt rendition of “With A Little Help From My Friends” by Daniel, supported by Jamie and Lloyd. But then I’d seen Joe Cocker on the film “Woodstock” bellowing and screaming the same song after he’d been dragged through a bush backwards, spastically playing air guitar as if his life depended on it. This wasn’t that. I had been ostracised at school for championing his performance in preference to something anodyne by Herb Alpert and His Tijuana Brass. And now here I was listening to smooth and polished, passion made to order by young men desperate only for fame it seems. But then I also recall Stacey singing an anthemic Queen song with the line “I want to live forever…” climbing up and up. And at that moment, in a non-ironic, un-sarcastic way, I so wanted to be alive – even though I was in Glasgow’s SECC with about forty minutes left to go. Music doesn’t actually respect your tastes. They’re just about prissy you.

So is X-Factor something to judge – harshly or otherwise? If Simon Cowell had bestrode the auditorium that afternoon I would have subjugated myself….and thanked him profusely. I’ve always been a bit star struck. Did I enjoy it? Well….durrrr! Surrounded by that many smiling faces with rabbit ears and fake foam rubber hands and almost continuous bad community singing, what’s not to enjoy? And next time I watch X-Factor in my sitting room, I will know the company I’m keeping and I might even let myself go on the odd chorus as I wave my big hands in everyone’s faces. Jedward! Daniel! Stacey! SIMON!!!

The X-Factor is so blatant. It’s sharp end business. Every decision, every judgement about every contestant is taken to maximise revenue – and the climax, the pinnacle, the apotheosis is that a new star – a new brand – is born. This year that climax was stolen by the band Rage Against The Machine who by viral messaging got enough downloads of their song “Killing in the Name” sold to take the number 1 spot.  This had been reserved for our about-to-be-crowned finalist, the young Northumbrian prince Joe McElderry. A blow struck against corporate programming perhaps. The workers had stolen the means of production – that star-making machinery – and used it for their own ends, to promote a funk metal rap of the kind that rarely hits the pop charts. “They spoilt the party,” simpered Cowell.

Rage Against the Machine have been a successful politico metal rap band who support grass-roots political action of a particular hue. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ZANL) – a guerrilla army supporting the indigenous poor in southern Mexico – for one. They’ve made a lot of money using the same machinery as Cowell and his X-Factor, channelling a proportion of it into causes they believe in. It marks them out as different from this manipulated form of pop music. But in what ways are they similar? X-Factor and RATM both make money from music and a refined publicity machine, is one way.

I think though that the most important similarity is harder to grasp. It has to do with representation, and belongs to most art-forms. It is not possible perhaps to live out all the potential lives we could have at our disposal. Experience suggests that doing one or two or three things completely – career-wise, family-wise, desire-wise – eats up a lot of a short lifespan. Most of us imagine doing or being much more than we ever are. But that fecundity is in the head. Art provides a means for its expression – anyway, a representation of it in some form. And however long artistic expression takes, it is always going to be quicker than thoroughly living another entire life.  RATM can get behind the Zapatista movement as a band; they can represent the struggle; and this representation, curiously, becomes part of their expression as a band – both a flag and an identifying set of values. It is undoubtedly less life-consuming – less dangerous – than being a Zapatista guerilla. It is not to demean the band and their alignments to point up the paradox that ZANL gives RATM something to sing about.

Representing those endless love affairs, that heightened operatic emotion and general on-message positivism, on the other hand, is the “cause” that the X-Factor finalists have committed themselves to. To actually live like that is the short route to the asylum – or more modishly, the drug rehab. Tom Waits talks about this. Realising that he didn’t have to live the life of his hard-drinking down and out hobo persona in order to sing his songs was probably better for his health in the long run. However, to do that, an artist has to become an actor – a re-presenter – able to fake sincerity and mean it.

But then that’s the music business I guess. That business we still call music. And perhaps sincerity is what you bring to the party. The audience decides. After all, you’ll know if it makes you cry, or urges you to action, or whatever it is you’re looking for.

For myself I’m finding it harder and harder these days to know whether to sing my heart out – or phone my broker – or get on my high horse. But in its own way that’s a delicious pleasure to wring out of an entertainment. And as Joe McElderry and half of the other finalists said straight after they said hallo, “You know, thanks to you guys, I’m living the dream.” There’ll be plenty of time left to spend in the non-representative, difficult old world-as-it-is once the show is over.




Do you know the three philosphers joke?

Marx says: To do is to be

Sartre says: To be is to do

Sinatra says: Do be do be do

I’m a Sinatra-ist by nature. I’ve also been a songwriter since I was seven – a little bit of doing sandwiched inbetween a lot of being. The first song I wrote was called “Witchcraft”, all about the way those foxy women entrapped clueless men with their seductive wiles. The Lennon to my McCartney (and I’m afraid it was that way round) was only a year older than me, so in my case it would have been a song about my mother or sister. Either that, or a “homage” to some drain-piped and winkled-pickered Lothario with an axe to grind.

Lately I’ve been a songwriter exploring different genres. There was my Blues phase – one long cathartic anti-depressant where no degree of misery was too extreme, and my voice rasped and rumbled in thin Beefheartian, Waitsian imitation, until I discovered that almost everything they knew came from Howling Wolf. Hell, I couldn’t pretend to be black.

Onto ballads in the English and Scots tradition – those thirty or forty verse monsters which served as the oral newspapers of their day. I’m not a jolly ploughboy, or an errant knight, no roving gypsy nor poacher, mill-hand, soldier, sailor, beggarman, thief – but some of my ancestors were. And even one generation back, their regional accents not wiped clean by education, I could think I had some lineage, some heritage – some claim on this tradition. Unfortunately, in terms of oral newspapers, my ballads were always going to be a bit too Guardian, as pink as the FT, a lot of the spice bleached from the telling. I have yet to stick my finger in my ear and take these beauties out to a hungry public.

And so to the crooners. If I were songwriter to the stars, by appointment to His Smoothness Frank Sinatra, or the Prince of Cool, Tony Bennett, or even to that new generation of young pretenders, Harry Connick Jr. and now Michael Bublé, what would I write like? What would it be to inhabit that new skin? Same old wine – in its phonetic sense too – but refreshed, more lively; and a whole different imaginary audience.

Research is key in this kind of genre-hopping. I still like record stores, Amazon.co.uk notwithstanding, but the barriers to research in this case were almost insurmountable. For which category do these crooners reside in, where no self-respecting muso can be found? You guessed it. Easy Listening. Filed alongside poor skinny Karen Carpenter, Joe Loss and His Orchestra and a whole universe of bland pap – the sine qua non of The X-Factor – nestles the produce of those big-lunged romantic boys. For research, I have to stand in the Easy Listening section. Of course, in your head, you pretend it’s for your mother or a favourite uncle or someone who remembers rationing – an older person certainly. That doesn’t last. One glance around tells you that you are that older person. You are standing where you belong.

Actually, it’s time to confess. I like these singers and their songs. Tom Waits can be too much: sometimes I’m just not strong enough. There are days – amazingly – when free improvisation just sounds like a racket. Prog Rock, stripped back roots music, socio-economic rants over hip-hop beats – it’s sort of like going to work. But Tony and Frank and all those others of their ilk, they’re there to do the work for you – to take the strain, to fly you to the moon and bring you back again for another sip of Martini. I only wish I could write their kind of songs.

This is my method. I drive forty minutes to work each day. I know I know. I should cycle or take the bus – the planet’s dying. However, the car is my song laboratory. I have a little recorder, a digital dictaphone, into which I sing the first things that come into my head as I drive – taking care – of course – to keep my eyes on the road – usually with nonsense words or syllables. When I get home at night, or later in the week, I listen back to see what’s retrievable – what’s melodic enough – and start to work it up on the piano. Key thing – fresh is best. Sing before you’ve heard any kind of music that day. (I got that tip from Tom Waits).

No great songs so far. No “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” or “Embraceable You”, and anyway I’m trying for something new and authentic – not a re-hash or a history lesson; not an imitation. And who’s going to sing them when they are finally buffed and polished, as shiny as a Las Vegas roulette wheel? Odds are against it being Michael Bublé. No chance at all it’ll be Frank. It’ll have to be me. That was anyway my first choice. What’s the point of a new set of clothes if you can’t put them on? You’ve surely got to give it a whirl, strut it, be it, do it. Or “Do-be-do” as we say in show business. “Do-be-do-be-do.”



Talking Silence

I am not a great fan of noisy biblical language. Words like “power” and “glory” and “almighty” leave me cold. And the hollow echo chambers that many churches are, seem to lend themselves particularly to these kinds of words. Rather than filling me with awe and devotion they conjure up militaristic associations, the rant of the polemicist, the pointed finger jabbing home its message. I prefer quiet words, and more and more these days, no words at all in my prayerful moments.

It has been interesting therefore to explore for myself silence within the Christian tradition….and discover whether or not I mean the same by it as others. What leads those other silent meditators to say nothing, I wonder? Is it, for instance, a similar lack of certainty to mine – a lack of certainty about language’s ability to convey whatever my prayer might be, as much as to whom it is addressed?

I was born into a Christian culture. My ethical code is constructed in relation to this culture – from which punishment for wrong-doing is not absent but over which the higher injunction of forgiveness prevails. My year is constructed around Christian festivals whether or not I am in a church-going phase. Forever and ever, when snow more and more rarely piles up at my door during the winter months, I will recall certain carols, expect nativity scenes, and experience a dim excitement inside at the thought of new life – new things. Belief in what are called the mysteries of Christianity – the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection – has transmuted into a kind of intellectual debate. These things are symbols. Or maybe they really happened, concretely, and we understand less than we think we do. Or, and this is the one I most often resort to, these are Christian koans, unanswerable propositions which lead to enlightenment somehow should we trouble to reflect on them long and hard enough. (The mystery is retained in that “somehow”. However a koan is not a mystery. It is a device that offers the chance to break through our rationality to a more inclusive perception of life. For example “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Only an imaginative leap can satisfactorily reply. “How come the Virgin birth?” we might ask in this spirit.)

I am reluctant to seek elsewhere for my pointers. Conversion to another religion, whether Islam or Buddhism, Judaism or Humanism , while I am certain it has benefits – the benefit of choice for instance and the enthusiasm which often accompanies such self-determination – has not appealed. I read about other faiths, but believe that without complete cultural immersion, the answers I seek might just slip by me in un-integrated detail.

I was pleased to discover then in the Christian monastic tradition a history – a story – of silence to engage with. It is the beginning of this investigation – this search – that I want to write about. It is of course, open-ended, as the best silences are, not boundaried round with reductive meaning. And it is ongoing.

The two members of monastic orders that I had heard of and who seemed to offer an entry point were Thomas Merton and Sister Wendy Beckett. A significant thing about both these people is that they were, or are, hermits within their orders – removed even further into aloneness and silent contemplation from the daily life of the monastery or nunnery. Ironically they are also the two that many people will know. By the time of his death, Thomas Merton has written about one hundred books. Sister Wendy has gone one better with her own TV series. The silence of these two, if not deafening, is certainly verbose.

So what – another paradox here – do they have to say about silence to us. Quite a lot, actually.

“The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and risk the sharing of that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you, then you will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words and beyond explanations because it is too close to be explained.”

(Merton, p.54)

This is interesting because what it suggests is that language – and therefore interpretation – requires a distance from the object to be able to operate. What is being talked about here – in the silence – is “the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God’s spirit and your own secret inmost self” which is “too close” to be explained. Prayers sent out on the wings of language it seems to me, are going in the wrong direction, away from the existing intimacy (if only we would recognise it). This is part of my gripe with bombastic, proclamatory Church language.

Now here’s Sister Wendy writing about painting.

“Silence is making-friends-with-time. It does not fight it or waste it; it refuses to run after it. Silence floats free with time, letting the pattern of moments unfold at its own pace. It is a way of becoming free, not only for the practical advantage of being able to “see” the beauty in what is grey, for example, but at a far deeper level. In silence, we break the hold time has on us and accept in practice that our true home is in eternity.” (p34)

My unsystematic research lurched next to accounts of the monastic life. I wanted to learn how silence was scheduled into the daily round and whether its practitioners thought they were doing what Merton thought he was. I found a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor the travel writer – “A Time To Keep Silence” – which consists of descriptions – as an outsider, a non-participant and non-believer – of three monasteries following three traditions which he visited. My favourite – for, I suspect, perverse reasons – is the account of the French Carthusians, a particularly harsh, silent order. Here the monks worked the land with the most rudimentary of implements, living on a diet of root vegetables. They reserved communication for their animals – a sort of pre-linguistic system of hoots and hollers. At all times – the heat of the summer, the winter freeze – they wore heavy habits and wooden sabots. For one of the brothers even this was not enough. Each morning he would fill his wooden clogs with a fresh prescription of thorns.

To stay silent under such conditions makes my attempts at meditation seem limp and pale. First off, I start by choosing the comfy chair. Shoes full of thorns? What for? How could you concentrate? This I assume though is the point. Silence squeezed through the narrowest of gaps, that focus needed to over-ride continuous pain, is compacted energy, a searching, scouring laser-beam. It is the sublimation of a strong awareness of our bodily, worldly condition into spiritual ecstasy. At least, I hope so. Leigh Fermor concludes that the men at this monastery were happy. Root vegetables + clogs full of thorns + silence + hard manual labour = happiness. A tough equation.

Some years ago I travelled in India. I read in my Lonely Planet guide that at an archway leading into Rishikesh at the foot of the Himalayas – the Beatles had gone there some years before to learn meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – there was regularly a man on a bed of nails. Beside him was a piece of cardboard with the following information written on it, in English. “Please do not disturb me. I have been meditating on the Infinite here” – although where is “here” in the vastness of  Infinity – “for many years. Yes, the nails still hurt.” When I was there, he wasn’t – but the empty bed of nails was. The scene was curiously affecting and it has taken a long time for me to get a grasp on why.

The empty bed of nails – representing one man’s attempt to keep his focus on God – like the empty cross, also talks of the end to suffering of that attempt. It talks of silence and a sort of positive emptiness. This is its own reward. The Holy of Holies, in the temple, was an empty space. Not just that God couldn’t be represented, but that He wasn’t being reduced to all this incarnation – this language, these things, this life as we lead it. What He is we can’t encompass, nor should we try.

Listen to this from “The Cloud of Unknowing”.

“And so it is that where another man might tell you to withdraw all your powers and thought within yourself, and worship God there – and he would be saying what was absolutely right and true – I do not care to do so, because of my fear of a wrong and physical interpretation of what is said. But what I will say is this: See that in no sense you withdraw into yourself. And, briefly, I do not want you to be outside and above, behind or beside yourself either!

“ ‘Well,’ you will say, ‘where am I to be? Nowhere, according to you!’ And you will be quite right! ‘Nowhere’ is where I want you! Why, when you are ‘nowhere’ physically, you are ‘everywhere’ spiritually.” (p.142)

The silence is not there to get us a perspective on God. Not even to understand or know Him, but to experience Him as inseperable from us, so close as to be beyond description. “There is no God but the God within” was a radical cry during the religious struggles of the English Civil War, but even that can be too much description.

Now, whether or not you place yourself within the Christian tradition, or indeed any other, or even outwith all religious traditions, the counselling tradition, of necessity, must find ways to talk about silence – to theorise it, if you like.   After all, the gaps between what is said, the silence between one therapeutic hour and the next, silence as avoidance, silence as communication, silence as depth experience is the non-identical twin to the talk of the talking therapies. The religious traditions I’ve encountered both theorise and create a practice of silence, and I think these can usefully inform and transform our counselling practice. But this is simply to indicate an adventure. Who knows where it will lead?

In my own experiments with silence, I still struggle with shutting myself up. The Promised Land the other side of that attempt flickers in and out of focus, and it crosses my mind that thorns in my clogs mightn’t be a bad idea. But then again……

Meditations on Silence            Sister Wendy Beckett    Dorling Kindersley 1995

A Time To Keep Silence     Patrick Leigh Fermor    John Murray 1957

Thomas Merton. Essential Writings     Thomas Merton    ORBIS Books 2000

The Cloud of Unknowing     trans. Clifton Wolters   Penguin 1978


June 2022