‘I guess I’m a “bad news” guy and you’re my “good news” twin…’ So said my old friend Paul Phillips recently. Paul writes a well-informed and trenchant blog on those big topical issues – Savile, Leveson, Starbucks and so on – that particularly exercise him (see The Write Stuff in the blogroll, below).
I don’t think I set out to be anyone’s ‘good news twin’, but I confess to being rather flattered by the description. I started this blog a little under three-and-a-half years ago. I suppose, looking back on it – and this final post before Christmas seems a good moment for reflection, that I set the tone pretty early on. The very first post was the story of how an American banker had been moved by an encounter with an author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to give up his job and join an aid agency. The story bore witness to the power of words to ‘agitate [the] heart’, as the ex-banker so beautifully put it.
One way or another I did my best over the next couple of years to celebrate the agitating power of words whenever I could. And if ever I forgot why I was writing the blog, I had the title that I had chosen, more appositely than I realised at the time, to remind me. Our words can only be kind, in the sense that they evidence our shared humanity, our humankindness, if they are spoken authentically. And authentic voices, even if not always the stuff of good news, are at least not the source of bad news which so often turns on some kind of inauthenticity.
More recently I’ve tended to drift away from my theme when events have moved me or caught my imagination in such a way that I’ve felt I had no choice but to write about them: a neighbour’s suicide; missing my son’s 21st birthday; a couple of books – Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places; the kindly security man at Edinburgh airport; the chance reunion with my friend the priest, to mention just a few…
But it remains my guiding principle that the world at large, and particularly the world of work, can be a kinder, more creative, more productive place if we attend more closely to the stories we tell and the language we use with one another. It follows that the earlier on in our development we get used to their power and richness, the better. Yet this is not a view shared by everyone.
‘Schools in America are to drop classic books such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye from their curriculum in favour of “informational texts”,’ reported The Telegraph recently. ‘Suggested non-fiction texts include Recommended Levels of Insulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California’s Invasive Plant Council … Supporters of the directive argue that it will help pupils to develop the ability to write concisely and factually, which will be more useful in the workplace than a knowledge of Shakespeare.’ No April fool, this. It was dated December 7.
Two days later the same paper reported from the Economist Books of the Year event where Philip Pullman was speaking. The way in which books are taught in schools are a form of torture, he said, going on to criticise the ‘painful’ way stories are torn apart in the classroom in an attempt to reveal what they ‘really mean’. The result is pupils who end up hating the books. Instead of being drilled and quizzed about them, children should be given time to enjoy the stories, he argued, quoting Einstein: ‘if you want your children to be intelligent read them fairytales and if you want them to be more intelligent read them more fairytales’. (We’ll have the chance to hear more from the horse’s mouth when Philip joins us as guest speaker at the Dark Angels Masterclass at Merton College, Oxford next April.)
If anything drives me to be Paul’s ‘good news twin’, it’s stories like these. I want to show those disciples of Gradgrind wherever they are – in education, in business, especially in government, even in the arts – what language and stories can really do for the human spirit. I want to see the scalpels and slide-rules slip from their fingers, the scales fall from their eyes. So I will find the counter evidence, the good news, wherever I can, and when none comes to hand I’ll simply tell my own stories in the very best way I can.
That’s why I write this blog – and why I‘ll be picking it up again with renewed energy in January. Thank you, gentle readers, for keeping me company so far. Thank you too for your kind words, the emails and comments that make the Thursday afternoon slog seem worthwhile. Meanwhile, a very Happy Christmas to you all!