A couple of times most weeks I take the train to Edinburgh. For several miles the line follows the Fife coast. There’s a long view south under huge skies across the Forth Estuary to Edinburgh and its acropolis, the Pentland Hills looming behind. In places the track runs very close to the shoreline and at low water there are colonies of seaweedy boulders, great expanses of mudflat, and flocks of wading birds to be seen. Yesterday morning was one of brilliant sunshine and air of a particularly limpid clarity, the water ruffled by a light breeze. At one point, as we rounded a headland, there, crossing a small bay was a solitary kayak, its paddler oblivious to the fact that twenty yards behind him, head and neck raised clear of the water, followed an inquisitive seal.
When we are curious we feel alive. Witnessing such a thing on a journey to work made me feel that a good day lay ahead, and indeed it did. First there was a meeting with Paul Pinson, theatre director turned executive coach, who partnered me on the Indian adventure last year. Paul gave me invaluable feedback on a story-telling workshop I’m preparing. Keep spelling out the business benefits and giving real life examples, he urged me. You may have all this knowledge, but to your audience it’s a new concept and they need to be reassured that what you’re telling them actually works. There’s no end to what we can learn, nor the satisfaction in it, I thought as I left.
Next came an Edinburgh International Book Festival board meeting: two hours of solid concentration, one tricky decision, and the thrill of hearing details of this year’s programme – a banquet of contemporary fiction and current thinking on everything from science and the environment to the Arab Spring and the growing power of China. Book festivals are a modern cultural phenomenon and more appear practically every week. With 750 events and more than 200,000 visitors over 17 days, we claim ours to be the world’s largest. But where does this desire to hear authors talking come from? I believe it’s about curiosity and learning again. Book festivals are really festivals of thinking and we hunger for the imaginative connections we can make, the sense of belonging we can experience, by hearing new, interesting and challenging ideas in the company of others.
From Edinburgh I travelled to St Andrews, back along the Fife coast under a still unblemished sky, with another colleague. Robert Fletcher, former chairman of Saatchi’s New York, is a genius at helping brands of all kinds to communicate why the world would be a poorer place without them. In this instance the brand is St Andrews University, which in two years’ time will be 600 years old and needs to find a compelling way to raise many millions of pounds over the coming years in the seemingly paradoxical pursuit of remaining small. Even ancient seats of learning have lessons to learn, in this case that the institutional voice will not always serve it best.
Nowhere is human curiosity more visibly enshrined than in a place such as St Andrews. It’s not just what makes us feel alive. It’s what keeps us moving forward.