Place matters. It shapes thoughts and emotions. We have always encouraged people who come on our Dark Angels courses to connect as strongly as they can with the place where the course is held. We want that heightened awareness of their surroundings to infuse what they write.
For that reason we’ve traditionally chosen venues more for character than, necessarily, accessibility. A certain quirkiness of accommodation (which is not a euphemism for discomfort) and ruggedness of landscape are characteristic. We take people away from their desks and immerse them in the unfamiliar.
But in the last year or so, cities have entered the picture. I’m wondering now how different might be the effects they have on our students. I’m thinking of Auckland, Oxford and Seattle – three very different cities on three different continents.
Just over a year ago, John Simmons and I travelled to New Zealand to run courses for Auckland University of Technology. We began with a residential in an award-winning modern house on a hillside above a famous beach – so far, so typically Dark Angels.
Then we moved to downtown Auckland and a former car showroom, now empty except for half a dozen high performance motorbikes tethered like greyhounds along one wall. With a noisy metal workshop in the basement, this was the trendy after-office-hours play-space of leading New Zealand adman, Nick Worthington.
There we held two sell-out, one-day workshops around a large steel-framed table, constructed downstairs for the purpose, in the otherwise furnitureless space. There was, in retrospect, a kind of high-octane urban energy, even a certain breathlessness, to the proceedings. The fact that our participants were mostly young players from New Zealand’s media and creative industries doubtless had something to do with it.
Contrast that with Merton College, Oxford, from which I returned last week after our biennial masterclass. Merton is the oldest independently established college in the university (founded 1264), and the home of JRR Tolkien and TS Eliot as well as the world’s oldest continuously used academic library. It’s a place behind whose ancient walls one feels almost in another dimension; one where the passage of time is measured not in days or weeks but decades or centuries.
Yet it’s hard to ignore the bustle of the modern city that is Oxford, lapping at the college walls like waves at a rocky shore. And we enter those waters fully when we step out to visit the Oxford businesses and institutions whose stories are a feature of the coursework. On the masterclass there is always a tension between ancient and modern. For our students, I believe it’s the source of a particular kind of creativity.
Then there’s Seattle, home to Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks among others. In June, our US associate Richard Pelletier and I are running a course there on a boat. Yes, a boat. A gorgeous 65-foot wooden motor yacht belonging to former branding wizard, now creative mentor, Ted Leonhardt. Ted came on our East Coast course last autumn and liked it so much he didn’t quite buy the company but offered to host us afloat in Seattle.
For three days (June 14-16) we’ll be leaving the hip, Ballard neighbourhood moorings every morning to cruise the Seattle waterways with Ted at the helm and, if the weather’s good, Richard, me and the participants on deck.
This is going to be yet another new Dark Angels experience for all of us. I imagine that along with everything else we will be asking them to do, watching the Seattle skyline from a slowly moving boat, the changing play of light as the sun travels through the sky and we make our way through the waterways, hearing the different sounds carrying across the inlets and bays, will bring a whole new dimension to the course, a novel sense of place, a new spirit to our students’ writing.
Place matters. How much, in this case, I’ll let you know – unless, of course, you can join us and experience it for yourself!