There’s something perversely appropriate about the fact that the darkest Christmas period I can remember (I’m speaking meteorologically here), should have heralded the year in which Dark Angels celebrates its tenth anniversary. Though there is actually nothing dark about Dark Angels. Quite the opposite, as a little bit of history will reveal …
It all started in 2004 when Stuart Delves, poet, playwright and Edinburgh-based copywriter, approached John Simmons, brand consultant, author of several books about business language, and a man generally considered to be the father of the concept of brand tone-of-voice. Stuart had also been centre director at Totleigh Barton, the Arvon Foundation’s writing centre in Devon. He wondered if the Arvon model of a week-long residential course could work for people in the business world, with the emphasis not on producing fiction or poetry, but rather engaging, imaginative, enlivening writing for the workplace, whatever that might be.
John agreed to try it. They drummed up a group of 15 guinea pigs, the course took place and no one had to be carted off on a stretcher. Applause all round … so, fast forward to autumn of the following year. A second course was due to be held at Moniack Mhor, the Arvon writing centre in Inverness-shire. At the last moment Stuart was unable to go and he and John invited me to stand in. I loved it immediately.
The next year we planned a more ambitious programme, including an advanced course at the house of my novelist friend Robin Pilcher, in Andalucia, and now it was time for a name – something more alluring than the generic ‘Creative Writing in Business’ we had so far come up with. John’s most recent book was called Dark Angels. It was 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.
It seemed a perfect title for our venture, even though a Google search led one straight into a weird world of Goths and gamers, dungeons and dragons. Well, if people thought we were a cult, fair enough: we were in a way, or have since become one, at least if having followers constitutes being a cult. And these days Google has become more discerning.
Our philosophy was taking shape: if you can enjoy writing and are free to be yourself as you do so, you are more likely to find engaging and imaginative ways to say things, more likely to write with all the natural emotion that comes of being human, more likely to make strong, lasting, empathetic connections with your readers. This was (and still is) the antidote to the flatulent, fraudulent waffle that passes for language in so many businesses and organisations up and down the land.
Our approach was defining itself, too: get people as far away from their offices as possible, use some creative writing techniques – a bit of observational writing, some poetry, short pieces of memoir and fiction, encourage them to tell stories, make sure there’s plenty of alcohol in the evenings, and above all offer people the gift of time to reflect, to share thoughts and ideas, to start really to hear their own and each other’s voices.
Word began to spread and students started coming to us from as far afield as Australia and the West Coast of the States. We refined the courses and introduced new ones. We also set up a couple of creative projects. One, in 2012, titled Other Worlds, invited pairs of writers and artists to create an exhibition in the empty spaces of the Oxford Story Museum’s soon-to-be-converted former telephone exchange. The other, Keeping Mum, is the collective novel written last year (without recourse to fisticuffs) by 15 Dark Angels and due to be published in April by the crowd-funded publisher Unbound.
Since 2004 we’ve helped more than 300 people find their writing voices. We’ve run courses in the Highlands and the Scottish Borders, the North of England, Oxford, Spain, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland. We have changed lives, so people have told us, and we have created an enduring and still-growing community of friends who are all committed to writing, and encouraging others in the business world to write, with integrity and authenticity. If EM Forster hadn’t coined it in the closing chapter of Howard’s End, our motto would surely have been ‘Only connect’.
All of which seems worth celebrating. So if, dear reader, you happen to be a member of that happy and darkly angelic throng, you will shortly be receiving an invitation to a gathering in April in London. If you are not, you might like to wish us well, and next time you read something in your working life that makes its point particularly well, or even raises a smile, listen hard: was that the rustle of wings you heard?