Several years ago, 26, the writers’ collective I’ve often mentioned here, ran its first big public creative project. 26 Letters, as it was called – appropriately, since the title of the collective is a reference to the DNA of the English language – paired 26 writers with 26 graphic designers or artists, and invited each pair to interpret a letter of the alphabet. The resulting artwork was to form an exhibition at the British Library, along with the illustrations for a book in which each pair would tell the story of their collaboration.
The pairs were duly drawn out of a hat and allocated their letters. I was partnered with a certain Alan Fletcher (somewhat disconcertingly, since one of my great friends from university goes by the same name, though with two ‘l’s), and our letter was Q. I emailed Alan, who was based in London, to say hello and heard nothing for a few days. Then the fax machine (it was 2004) whirred into life and a sheaf of scribbled sketches dropped to the floor along with an almost impenetrable reply, the gist of which was that what he needed were the actual words I planned to write, not the rambling thoughts behind them.
Eventually we made telephone contact. Was that Alan, I enquired. ‘Possibly,’ came the gruff and, I soon found out, characteristic reply. It became clear that a penchant for communicating by handwritten fax was not the only unusual thing about him. My partner, I was mortified to discover, was possibly the grandest of all the grand old men of British design, a founder of the legendary Pentagram agency, a pioneer, garlanded with awards and held in the highest esteem by anyone who knew anything about design.
But it was lucky I was not one of them. Had I known this at the start, I would have been in awe at the prospect of creating words to go with the work of such a luminary figure. As it was, I began to respond in kind, with handwritten faxes. In due course he produced a stunningly elegant montage of images with an empty space for words, which he asked me to hand-write. He’d been getting me into training, I realised.
When the time came to launch the exhibition at the British Library, I was thrilled at the prospect of meeting him at last. I rang his assistant to find out if he was coming, only to be told that unfortunately he was going to be away ‘giving a lecture in Bulgaria’. I mentioned this to a friend of his at the launch. The friend snorted. ‘Of course he isn’t! He just never comes to things like this.’ (And now, thanks to Alan, whenever I wish to be unavailable I simply find that I’m giving a lecture in Bulgaria.)
For all this, I never met Alan and sadly never will. He died, much mourned, in 2006. But there is something he wrote in his preface to our chapter in the book that has been nudging me lately. ‘I don’t think in a step-by-step fashion,’ he wrote, ‘or string things together like beads. I shuffle in backwards and look around.’
It might seem like a risky approach to things, one that would take courage and confidence; and for anyone used to looking for, or creating, structure, such as writers, it could sound like an anathema. But then isn’t it, for example, just what writers do when they begin to research something, with often no very clear idea of where the journey might lead them? Isn’t that where creativity so often begins, not just for writers but for anyone who has to think seriously about anything?
And as an approach doesn’t it offer, more broadly, the antidote to the world of models and paradigms and processes in which we all find ourselves ensnared at different times, in different aspects of our lives? Isn’t it another way of saying that we need to claim space to breathe and experience and intuit, before we feel compelled to rationalise? For me it’s part of a growing realisation that I spend too much time in my own head. I need to get out more. Shuffle about a bit, preferably backwards. Peer around. Mmmm – watch out for that lamppost … But it feels good already …