Each new year John Simmons, Stuart Delves and I meet in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s comfortable rooms on Edinburgh’s Queen Street, as we did today. It’s our annual Dark Angels partners’ meeting. We have a bar lunch, a bottle of wine, review the courses we’ve run over the year past and plan the year ahead, then John goes back to London on the train and Stuart and I shuffle off into the murk of a Scottish January afternoon.
Now entering its eighth year of existence, Dark Angels is a strange, uncategorisable beast – part business communications course, part creative writing course – and as far as we know there’s nothing like it anywhere else on the planet. Our students come from corporations large, businesses small and the freelance community. The corporate ones tend to work in brand management, marketing or communications; the others are consultants of one kind or another, or they are business writers. All come out of an interest in improving the way they write at work.
The Dark Angels thesis is that good writing is good writing whatever the context, and that the world of business communication has everything to learn from the world of literature. The skills that novelists and poets bring to their work are entirely transferable to the workplace and the exercises we set our students reflect that. Moreover, we make no bones of the fact that ‘creative’ writers generally work with their emotions and imaginations fully engaged and that good writing, in the workplace or anywhere else, therefore involves a large degree of self-awareness. So our students find themselves writing poems, stories and descriptive pieces, often on very personal subjects.
Most years we come to the conclusion at our January meeting that we could make more money out of Dark Angels than we do, but for that to happen it would have to become the antithesis of everything it currently stands for – which is an alternative, sometimes mildly subversive, vision of the world of business communications. Anyway, we do it mainly because we all three love it; it has become a passion. The thrill of bringing together a group of people who don’t know each other and taking them on a journey of creative revelation and self-discovery is very hard to describe. But it can be hugely rewarding and it is almost always moving and inspiring, the human capacity for inventiveness and connection a constant source of wonder.
Does it really work? This is another thing we ask ourselves annually. And if it does, how do we know? After all, the goal is to send our students back to work not as fledgling poets (though that sometimes happens) but as confident, polished professionals in the unforgiving world of business communications. On one level we know it works because people keep coming back. This April we’re running the second Dark Angels masterclass at Merton College, Oxford, at which most participants will already have been on two previous courses. But what about career development? Do Dark Angels graduates move ahead in their jobs?
It seems so. A quick trawl of past courses today produced quite a few potential ‘case studies’. Among those who have said to us that Dark Angels was a career turning point, one has gone on to be the senior writer for a major soft drinks company and recently won a coveted D&AD ‘yellow pencil’ award for copywriting; one now holds a very senior position in one of the world’s largest creative consultancies; and one has helped build the brand and write the best-selling books for one of the UK’s most popular TV programmes. It would be condescending to say that they’re our protégés, but we’re still in touch with them and their achievements make us proud.
And the name Dark Angels? It’s a nod to Milton’s Paradise Lost and the idea that our creativity comes from our flawed human nature; that as Dark Angels we are neither those who have ascended nor those who have fallen, but that we occupy the fertile, if broken, territory somewhere in between. www.dark-angels.org.uk