Finca el Tornero de Abajo is the Spanish home of my childhood friend, novelist Robin Pilcher. A chestnut farm on a hillside in the Sierra de Aracena, 100 kms northwest of Seville, it’s a place of magical light, long views to distant ridges, tumbling wooded slopes and clear, clean air.
One wakes there to a morning chorus of dogs, roosters and a donkey, their voices echoing up from the valley as it floods with sunlight. And there’s another sound when the Dark Angels are gathered there, as we were last week: the sound of human voices raised together in celebration of existence.
Since our courses are about helping people to develop their metaphorical voices as writers, we work on the principle that it’s good for them to exercise their physical voices as well. So the day begins with five minutes of singing, usually a simple but beautiful early Christian chant: ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est (where there is kindness and love, there is god).
Religion has never had any place on our courses and never will, but that’s not to say it can’t offer us a rich seam of music and language. The melody of Ubi Caritas is easy to learn and the sentiment is one that most people find hard to disagree with, even though some might prefer to substitute the word ‘truth’ for ‘god’. Most importantly, though, the chant brings us together in a way that these days is all too rare.
Once upon a time the human voice was the predominant sound wherever one walked on earth, but today it’s drowned out by machines, and even when it’s not, half of us have our ears blocked by headphones. But at Finca el Tornero, our voices ring out in unison across the valley, the chant at once a confluence of sounds, a raising of consciousness and an invocation. It brings us together in a way that reminds us of both our individuality and our shared humanity. It’s good for our lungs and our heads, our hearts and our souls.
And when we come to the other exercises, that word ‘kindness’ is at the root of everything we teach, for kinder words are those that work harder to recognise our human kinship. Nothing is more vital to good writing or any other kind of communication, and yet it’s so often missing in the world from which our students come, the world of business. Each year we watch them drink at the well of kindness like desert travellers at an oasis.