IT AINT WHAT YOU DO, IT'S THE WAY THAT YOU DO IT

I went to an event yesterday. The Big House Expo, arranged - naturally enough - by The Big House, who are responsible for supporting Nottingham entrepreneurs and businesses operating in and around the creative and digital sectors to think and act differently about how they do what they do. And they’ve done a fine job, juggling their resources and contacts to deliver a programme of workshops, seminars, coaching and mentoring that’s benefitted a whole range of people.

Yesterday was an opportunity to meet a wonderfully diverse group who have in common a desire to do more of what they do. I learned lots speaking with a Palestinian woman about the work she’s doing to make UK universities more welcoming to overseas students. Chatted to an artist whose love of bold colours has led to painters travelling from other parts of the country to attend her workshops. Swapped stories with Phil Hughes, whose no-bull approach to marketing is producing some great work. Caught up with Lucy Brouwer, who as well as doing her brilliant Watson Fothergill tour is planning other Nottingham walks. Checked in with Lamar Francois, whose brilliant photography documented a festival in Mansfield where I’ve been been going in recent weeks to support a group of young people creating social media content and - more importantly - working in teams to deadlines with whatever resources are at hand. Listened to someone describe with relish how she’s found renewed zest in geeky creativity and pungent jokes. Heard doer-of-all-things-media Rachael van Oudheusden deliver the talk she said she’d never do, and (no surprise) make it funny and real. Talked to a savvy producer and filmmaker with heaps of experience who’ve set up a production company I really like the look of. I could go on. You get the idea.

The Big House for me has also been an opportunity to work as a coach with some brilliant people at different stages of their journey - from leaving the security of full time work and putting the hours in to creating what could be a new way of life, to taking a business forward that’s been getting quite a bit of attention and needs more focus for its founders. Every story is different, because each of us is different. How we get where we are is unique, and it’s a privilege to listen to people share what’s led them to the point where they’ve sought support. What they have in common, is the recognition that however well they’re doing now, there’s an extent to which the future requires some kind of transition. Course corrections often start inside, if they’re going to have the desired effect on the outer world.

Billing myself as an escape consultant yesterday allowed for some great conversations about that issue. Expectation is a prison that we all spend time in at various points. Sometimes getting out is as simple as understanding the implications of the language you use to describe what’s going on, or at any rate what you believe to be the case. Other times, it’s more useful to abandon words and rational structures and connect with what your body tells you. For every way in, there’s a way out, and some of the ones I’ve come up with - always a response to the individual and situation - are pretty way out. What matters is that they work. An impromptu chat yesterday led to someone I’d never met before realising they were capable of something they’d considered impossible until that moment. Other conversations were more about eating crisps and swapping jokes. Get in touch, and we’ll see where it goes.

ADVENTURES IN COMIC PUBLISHING

You may be interested in a graphic novel I have coming out soon. It's called Dadtown, and it's a project that’s been bubbling up for some time now with amazing artists Raben White (linework) and Jess Parry (colours).

We discovered at a comic convention the quickest way to get across Dadtown is with the phrase “Toddlers with shotguns!”. That element of high-octane weird mayhem comes from being exposed to the shock of 2000AD at the right age, just as it was launched. It’s a story about family messed-up to Greek tragedy levels; whether a clone has an identity beyond the person they’ve duplicated; and how the human inhabitants of an alien world can get beyond colonial thinking. Peek closer and you’ll see environmental and mythic themes too – it all comes together on the subject of monsters...

Creating Dadtown was a joy. Sessions with Raben and Jess remain a model of how collaboration can at its best be an art form in itself. I had a reasonable map of how the story worked overall, and each chunk was shaped by hilarious get-togethers when we knew we were on the track of the next piece as we hit a deep and dark vein of “the right kind of wrong”.

People who’ve been along for the ride when we were online say things like Leonardo Faierman: "…finally got around to reading the comic and it's fucking splendid. Weird, gross and wonderful. Awesome work!". Pippa Howarth: "…the story is really engrossing so far and as for the art, it is brilliant. So far it reminds me a little of the series Saga." Along the way we got a deal with Canadian publisher Underbelly, who were good people but sadly went belly-up. That took the wind out of our sails, but we’re now back with a complete collection, and have put time into edits to give the whole extra zing and cohesion.

The story is around 150 pages long. It's finished. And we're asking people to help pay for a limited edition print run that will launch at Nottingham Comic Convention on Saturday October 19th. You can secure a copy for £15, plus £3 p&p (UK only at this point). You'll receive your copy in October. Paypal.

 

THE WOOD NOT THE TREES

I met a friend yesterday, who was listening to jazz in his car. Though the instant I said it I realised I was wrong, I identified the trumpeter as Miles Davis. A safe bet, given he and Louis Armstrong are the world’s most well known jazz trumpeters and the song didn’t have that New Orleans feel. Neither was it Miles, whose tone is often melancholy - this was friendly, extrovert. A pause would have led to me accept that I didn’t know the mystery player - but could say who it wasn’t.

Rush for certainty is a classic example of premature closure. We identify what seems to be a gap, and plug it with whatever at hand seems to fit. It’s a smart move at one level - we’re wired for survival and picking up on hazard helps us do that. We start to perceive something in our field of vision within around 50 to 75 milliseconds. In that time, an awareness of colour and boundaries and distance forms. By 200 milliseconds we’ve shifted from perception to recognition. That particular combination of textures, movement, and sounds is a dog – one you may like if it reminds you of a pet, or fear if you were bitten by one of the same breed.

All very well, but that process means we’re wired for picking up sameness and can miss vital differences. Once a label’s in place, we’ve got no incentive to change it. Dogs aren’t the only things we can have prejudices about. If we’re lucky, someone will point it out and we can update our concepts - or get angry with them. Otherwise, it’s like the guy rocking a defiant mullet long after they’ve been even ironically fashionable - something that helps define who we are, that not only others mistake for us but so do we.

As with bad hair, so with beliefs.

A bit of uncertainty helps shake things up. There’s an interesting paradox in all this. Robert Anton Wilson noted “imposition of order equals escalation of chaos”. One classic example is the groundnut scandal in the country we now know as Tanzania - on maps at the time the area was marked Tanganyika. It was an attempt in the 1940s to develop the local economy, instigated by a senior Unilever manager who believed peanuts could produce vegetable oil. What followed was an escapade costing many millions of pounds as tens of thousands of British soldiers and engineers turned up with tractors, most of which never even made it to the intended site. Undeterred, men and money continued to pour into the region. The few nuts grown were flooded away, and the British finally went home leaving behind them land needing a long time to recover thanks to their antics.

If only they’d thought to pay attention to their surroundings, and listen to the locals.

Something similar happens when a professional of whatever sort attempts to attach a pre-fabricated solution in the erroneous belief this is another instance of something they’ve seen before. It won’t be. Even if there are many things the previous and current situation have in common, focusing on those will blind you to their differences. And it’s in difference that the particular tells its truth, if only we can pay attention.

Shaking up patterns can be really helpful. And there are many implicit in what happens between people when one is paid to support the other, as in sessions that get names like coaching or therapy. Quite often such interactions happen in an office or over a coffee. For quite a while now, I find more interesting results emerge from a walk. Around town can be fine, but city settings are by definition blaring with logos and other markers defining ownership of space.

Get out into greener areas, and something else starts to happen. Walk in places where physical demarcations are unclear, and personal boundaries too can take on different forms. The physicality of what’s happening is also beneficial - people walking at a pace with a rhythm in an area maybe neither has been before has a different quality than ‘person with intention’ and ‘person with solution’.

We might not be able to label what’s happening to us and around us, but that doesn’t make it bad. The badness is often our felt response to an inability to create such a label. Relax into that distinction like a dog rolling in leaves. Somewhere in your experience you’ll have a reference for what it’s like as perception slides from the unknown to the known. It’s a state worth accessing again. Novelty helps, and one way to encourage our resistance to difference is to make the experience of discovering it something fun.

Feelings work much like perceptions. They arise, followed by whatever linguistic tags go with those emotions: fear, anger, disgust, etc. As neuroscientist Rick Hanson notes “The brain is Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” We skew to the negative because survival requires that we respond, even though much of the unpleasantness we are made aware of at this point in history is fake news. Worse yet, people know that and want more of it, not least because they’re sick of being lied to by experts who won that status by being better at schooling geared largely for rewarding obedience.

Advertisers clamour for our attention, lying about why we should invest the survival tokens we work for in them and not rivals. What truly does matter is the consequences of such acquisition and competition based thinking on a global scale, but so successful have political classes and the branded world been at installing their priorities we’re more concerned about mortgages and holidays and student loans than what’s happening to the planet we share and people we’re invited to hate. And yet - there are glimpses of hope. Younger people intolerant of the intolerance of the older generation. Technologies that can help heal the environment. A surge of interest in alternative ways of thinking and doing, old and new.

It’s a lot to take on, and many prefer not to. Yet, simple choices can make a real difference. Time in the woods can reduce stress, depression, and blood pressure. Children playing among trees increase cognitive skills, manual dexterity, and ability to assess risks. I’m willing to bet that’s because they’re dealing with things as they are, rather than referring to a mental template. The branded world fools you there’s such a thing as consistency and reliability: see logo, feel good, spend money, get stuff. Rinse and repeat. Nature makes no such pretence. Instead it presents pattern, and there’s a big difference between responding to those and mass producing illusory solutions.

All of that loops us back to Wilson and his observation that chaos arises from imposing order. Between the two there’s a space where each possibility can be perceived. In that space is paradox. As Durrenmatt noted, exposing yourself to paradox exposes you to reality - because it’s in those moments beyond language we start to get some sense how much of reality we have a hand in creating.

That realisation will fade, but while it exists the possibility of change can be glimpsed and acted on. If you’d like someone to go on that journey with, to find and hold that space, get in touch. I regularly work with entrepreneurs and artists, coaches and counsellors, mothers and managers, to support them in escaping constraints that limit their awareness and ability to achieve results. Let’s plan your jailbreak together.

DOES WHATEVER A WRITER CAN

It’s hatching time again. Creative projects have different phases. The stakes for this one are big. I’m comfortable with that, and the intent is to create a television series that could occupy a good chunk of my attention for several years.

One reality of that is I’m in no position to actually script it myself. Professionally, I don't have the credibility to head up a project that someone would invest a ton of money in. But I can at least conceive the story, and write my take on a pilot episode, to give a feel for how I want it to be in case anything does happen with it. Right now, the task is just do it, regardless of outcome.

What matters more than anything about all this is honouring the idea I’ve found. Sometimes, it seems the idea has found me. I don’t express that kind of thinking in some quarters, but that’s pretty much how it is on occasion. Stories are of various sorts. There are those I can bolt together by bringing together a mix of research and prior examples, the sort of work I’ve often done when commissioned to write by someone else.

My own ideas tend to be something else. Often their identity isn’t clear to me at the time I write them. It wasn't until I wrote a script about army bullying that I realised I was writing about experiences much closer to home. The short film White Lily wouldn’t have been possible without a particular relationship. But knowing that’s where they came from wouldn’t have helped me write either, and realising beforehand I was exploring my history with reference to bullying would have probably deterred me from going anywhere near that script. And, White Lily has ideas about identity and memory and language that owe nothing to any relationship though do figure in my fascinations. The bullying script was the start of a longer investigation into masculinity.

This is all bubbling away while I’m mulling over stuff to do with King Arthur, Brexit, and - since yesterday - the utter joy that is SPIDER-MAN: Into The Spider-Verse. Trust me, it’s an extraordinary animated film that casually brings together multiple versions of the same character from different realities, allowing them to occupy a shared space with their own distinct visual styles. The one the story is most concerned with is Miles Morales, whose dad is African-American and mum Latina, with a knotty family situation every bit as compelling as that which drove Peter Parker to don the Spidey suit after his selfish actions led to the death of a beloved uncle.

Each and every one of those Spider-characters has an equivalent drive to put the world right. Never mind the costumes, the powers - what matters is characters striving to do what’s just both despite and because of the history they bring to the outfits they wear as they swing around town. Deep in the soil those characters are planted in, emotion and morality connect in powerful ways. That grounding allows the film to be visually playful to the point of joyous absurdity, because it’s always in the service of a coherent narrative the viewer is committed to seeing the outcome of.

Actually though, it’s not even that.

We know very well that Spider-Man will win because of course that’s what going to happen.

What counts is whether that victory is earned.

Somewhere in all this - homelessness and Excalibur, Spider-Man and story structure, deep character foundations and whizzbang visuals, remorseless logic and the importance of surprise - a script is finding its way into the world -

A million people are thinking the same as they hover over the keyboard right now.

Maybe you’re one of them.

Here’s to getting it right.

STAN - SOME KIND OF A MAN

I know parents who tell their kids about metaphors and meaning way before those concepts are useful. Maybe they’re hoping it'll prepare them for the exams they fear, which often amount to preparation in turn for a job they’ll come to hate. I was lucky - my mum and dad told me stories instead. Mum’s adventures in Italy working as a nanny for a Jewish family who came to Britain to flee the Nazis. Dad’s escapades dispensing rail warrants during national service, one reason I came to love the Bilko show - resentment of the army made up for by the opportunities it presented to the nimble of thought. It taught me that school, and systems like it, could be gamed.

The books of legends I devoured gave me a feel for the epic, the magical, of right and wrong and the ways they can be thwarted. Comics had crossed my path, but at that point I’d enjoyed them - humour stories mostly - without them making a real impact. And then I encountered superhero comics. All of the stuff about justice, and honour, that moved great heroes like Thor and Lancelot to do greater things to make the world right - it was there in the glorious stories of costumed adventurers living in a world more or less like our own. There was even a superhero version of Thor, and a kid who called out Shazam - the initials of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury - to transform into a champion.

The first superhero comics I came across were from DC. I was ill, at my gran’s place in Devon, and to occupy me she opened up a trunk of comics collected by one of my uncles. Whatever delirium I was experiencing was heightened by those four-colour beauties, even more when the first I read turned out to be a parallel world story with two versions of each character. The effect was kaleidoscopic, but it was Marvel I turned to when I started buying comics of my own. Something about the characters registered more. Like me, they were flawed.

It wasn’t just the heroes, and what they got up to, brilliant though it often was. John Buscema’s art on The Avengers had a vital urgency that felt indefinably right; Jack Kirby’s depiction of the noble and stoic Black Bolt was Shakespearean - a mute king and his court; the intense emotions and cosmic scope of Jim Starlin’s hero Adam Warlock were dwarfed only by the ideas underpinning his story; Jean Grey’s tragic transition from her early role as Marvel Girl before becoming first Phoenix and then Dark Phoenix in Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic run on X-Men. I was buying many of my comics second hand, imports from the last decade I hoovered up at random, piecing together my particular version of the Marvel universe. And I got to know the names of their creators thanks to the Bullpen Bulletins that would appear in every issue. They were put together by the man at the heart of it all, Stan Lee.

Those promotional pieces were brilliant. They presented creators like Rascally Roy Thomas and Ring-A-Ding Romita hanging out in a clubhouse for grown-ups. The truth was probably more Made Men from what I gather, but I was 12 and excited by hints about forthcoming stories that would shake the foundations of this or that character. Sometimes there’d be word of new heroes to come, like The Human Fly (a rare disappointment from the House of Ideas). And it was all written in the breathless carnival barker tone that James Ellroy does so well at public events.

Stan Lee was a huckster, a shill, a hustler with a heart of gold and a tendency not to give his collaborators the credit they deserve. But he loved his characters, and Marvel, and knew how to connect with kids through stories that looked tacky to some but often featured a wider vocabulary than the newspapers read by those who looked down on them. Stan’s Soapbox was the centrepiece of the Bullpen Bulletins. Here’s a chunk from one he wrote in 1968, the year Martin Luther King was shot:

"Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can't be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them, is to expose them — to reveal the insidious evil they really are."

Stan was talking about the legacy of World War Two and the history of his family. Like many who shaped the evolution of American comics - Will Eisner, Max Gaines, Bob Kane, Julius Schwarz among them - Stan Lee was Jewish. His experience growing up in an immigrant family shaped the publications that went out with his name on, never mind how much work he put into them. That’s stuff for another day, and Stan was like us all of his time. The morality that came across in the comics he had a big hand in creating is pretty straightforward, and it’s notable that very few of the characters created since Marvel’s 60s and 70s heyday have taken off with the public.

The Marvel films we watch feature heroes from that earlier era. Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk and others are characters whose very simplicity - the core of each can be captured in a handful of words - allows them to be vehicles for some great stories. Their designs, thanks to Kirby, and others including Steve Ditko and Dave Cockrum, have more or less stood the test of time. Interesting that the characters which have taken off more recently are anti-heroes like Wolverine, Punisher, and Deadpool.

Stan’s fictional world was a simpler one than ours, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of simplicity in creating stories for the young. Complexity will find them in time. Allow at least the possibility of being influenced by the values that led Spider-Man to look after Aunt May after his actions caused the death of Uncle Ben. With great power comes great responsibility, indeed. And if your own family is too confusing, be inspired by the Fantastic Four, who argue and fall out, but are always there for each other when the chips are down and Mole Man is threatening to collapse their Baxter Building home with his infernal digging. Or take a tip from Black Bolt, who knows things so dread that even to open his mouth will level a city. Stan Lee seems a million miles away from the Inhuman monarch, but there’s something they have in common, expressed in Stan’s familiar sign-off…

‘Nuff said.

KNOW YOUR PLACE

Not far off one of the arterial roads that connects Nottingham to the motorway system, a dual carriageway where traffic churns pretty much 24/7, there’s a drive-in McDonalds. Opposite, there’s a turning that branches with two routes into Old Basford. One takes you over a stone bridge by a church, and towards industrial units where you can buy sheet glass or get your car fixed. The other, along a wall behind which trains rattle, past a boarded-off site that’s never been repurposed in any of the ways local rumour has suggested, to a place of terraced houses.

Locally, rather than take unwanted items to a tip people tend to leave them outside their homes for passers-by to choose whether they want a wooden CD holder with a missing shelf, a wonky spice rack, a stray toaster. Before now I’ve come home with things that I can use, or that I know a neighbour might appreciate for the kids she looks after in our shared back gardens.

A couple of minutes away Vernon Park welcomes Sunday league footballers, dogwalkers, families tossing a frisbee. Half an hour ago a guy in his 20s leaning back on a bike watched his 3 kids play, agreeing with their mother that they’ll have McMuffins for breakfast in a while.

I’ve been enjoying the park on a daily basis for a few weeks now. Sometimes I’ll use the exercise equipment that’s been there since 2012 courtesy of the Queen. The roads were packed when she came, on a blazing hot day. I still don’t understand what she had to do with putting gym gear there, planted in concrete to deter anyone who might want to uproot a rowing machine for their garden, but I’m appreciative of their presence.

Getting to know Vernon Park better has helped me understand the concept of parks more generally. They’re interesting spaces. If I’m not making use of the exercise machines, then I’ll take a wander around the whole area. I could use any route across the grass, through the trees, by the pond - but what I actually do, more or less, is follow a tarmac path. The whole space has been designed with that in mind, allowing you to take in a variety of scenes as you do.

Coming through gates painted municipal green there’s a low building with a 1980s feel. There are changing rooms for footballers and those who use the tennis court, toilets for anyone, and rooms available for hire. I’ve been to a Slimmer’s World class there, and voted in the exact same space on several occasions.

Just after that building is the first of the 20-odd bins dotted around the park. Dog owners are requested to deposit bagged droppings there. I use them to put in the litter I sometimes collect, which I started to do when after a few days of visiting I began to feel like one of the custodians of this shared space.

That notion of communal territory is interesting. I don’t feel obliged to pick up litter on streets, so how come I do when there’s grass around me? Partly it’s about the visibility of that litter against the green, but there’s more to it. A park feels different in all kinds of ways, and the space shapes our behaviour. You’re more likely to engage with people in a park. In an open space, where there are trees, and animals run more or less free, we change in ways that are good for us. The greetings we exchange, the little conversations that crop up, are a reflection of that. Something social is happening for which we are grateful.

The outdoorness of it all is critical. And connected to that, a park is somewhere for everyone. Unlike so many other places we spend time, a park is not branded except in the most basic ways. It has a name, and that’s pretty much it. Compare to the urban experience, where logos shriek at you from every building, insisting on the right of the corporations they denote to impinge on your consciousness. Instead, give me birdsong, lime trees, and a chance of spotting the heron who’s become an occasional resident.

There are more subtle aspects I’m still pondering. Walking by the pond, approaching a path that leads to one of the entrances, you go under a stone arch. It changes the way I feel as I do, and that’s about more than stepping through brickwork. Something about the surface above flickers constraint along with shadow as I step beneath. For an instant, the feeling of being inside strobes within, like a switch has been flicked.

We need spaces like this, and I am blessed to have one on my doorstep. And I have some sense of how others experience it. The retired chap with a dodgy hip who circumnavigates the park five times before going home, where he will have lunch with his grandkids a couple of times a week, and in the evening sit in the garden with a bottle of wine as he does his crossword. The veiled women who laugh as they picnic on a huge blanket. The geezer with swept-back hair and a cigarette who takes his aged mum for a walk. The Turkish man with three rods lined up hoping for fish he can catch to eat and sell. The pink-haired woman perched on a rock at the back of the library using its wi-fi so she can send job applications from a laptop.

I think about other places I’ve known. The woods in Disley where I spent my 50th birthday, bathing my feet in a chill stream under a canopy of trees. A beach in Anglesey, the sea lapping against a pebbled beach as it has for millennia. A mountain in Bavaria I climbed with my father, looking at the tapestry of landscape unable to discern signs of human presence. A walk around Uluru, radiating something primal and mythic with a visceral intensity that punches through the frenetic surface of the branded world’s greedy hold on mind. Companies pay millions to create brands hoping they will establish a foothold in the consciousness of consumers, but the presence of something so powerful demanding nothing while offering so much makes it clear how pale, how needy, how empty that clamour for attention is.

HOW I LEARNED BAD CORPORATE ART IS A GOOD WARNING SIGN, EVEN IF THE ALIENS AREN'T REALLY INVOLVED

Woven into much of the material written on and around personal development, and implicit in what goes on in many coaching sessions and workshops, is that humans are more or less rational. Goal setting is the epitome of that worldview - get yourself an ambition, break it down into manageable steps, and launch yourself at it. The intensity of your commitment will see you through. 

I'm not so sure. People are multi-faceted. There are aspects of us we don't know very well, and would prefer didn't exist. Getting all whooped up and motivated about achieving a dream doesn't stop that being the case, though for a while it might be you can kid yourself that what matters is the loudest voice in your head rather than the soft chorus at the back.

I had a couple of stays in mental hospitals, in 2004 and 2006. The experiences were vile beyond belief, and I'm incredibly grateful for what ultimately came out of them in subsequent years. There were particular themes running through my psychoses which for a long time I couldn't make sense of. I identified with King Arthur at one point, and had a sense of Britishness that was surprising, and seemed to connect with deep historical currents. And in that Arthurian mode, I was concerned with how my country was under alien influence, easily identified by the kind of banal corporate abstract art that's bought by the metre and hangs in lobbies. 

The pinnacle of this fantasy involved me wandering through a hotel in central London. I was in the belly of the beast, and strode my way from floor to floor looking for the extra-terrestrials who had infiltrated Albion. Instead, I found the roof of the building, and pissed on it as I looked across the skyline to express my contempt for the interlopers. Heading back down to ground level I was wrestled to the ground by about half a dozen members of staff and bundled into the back of a police van. 

Prior to all this I'd been immersed in projects that I'd set outcomes for, broken down into achievable chunks, and I was making good progress. I'd written my first script for a BBC show, impressed the most powerful producer in British film with my work, and was picking up a reasonable amount of freelance copywriting jobs. 

Why I crashed and burned was for a tangle of reasons that hadn't been touched on in my personal development journey. Fast tracking myself through a range of NLP trainings had been an amazing experience that catalysed my ability to get things done, but there was deeper and stranger stuff lurking within. In the mash-up, it was me that got mashed. And it's taken years to make sense of that, during which I've become a fundamentally happier and more fulfilled person.

A good percentage of that NLP experience remains something of real value to me, not that percentages is an adequate way of thinking about it. And those learnings now exist within a wider context. All of that stomping about a hotel with shitty art on the walls looking for bad guy ETs turns out to have been a metaphor complete with minibar facilities, and a supporting cast of cops and waiters. It was about me understanding in some fundamental way who I am, and what I'm not. The King Arthur bit is admittedly grandiose, but the idea of a man standing up for values older than the era he lives in registers. And that's where the crappy corporate art is perfect, symbolising the kind of crass culture I have no desire to work in or contribute to. 

There's more too, about my growing sense of connection with nature, and how spending time in unspoilt places reinforces what's important in my life, and helps me make better choices about what I do, and who I do it with. I've also benefitted immeasurably from bodywork, counselling, and meditation, all of which have helped thread together unconnected strands of the person I'm becoming. Making stuff happen matters, sure. I'm doing more of that, about things that matter more. Intuition and heart guide me increasingly, and they lead me to forest walks and poetry, beach days collecting stones and watching waves, and happy times with friends and lovers. Psychotic episodes were an extreme form of escapology to help me get out of a life heading in the wrong direction, even though it was what I thought I wanted and had set goals to achieve. 

In turn, that growing sense of what I'm about has affected my approach to coaching. If you're after someone who'll get you hurtling towards whatever you think success is, odds are I'm not the person you need to speak to. If instead you've experienced some of that success and discovered that life hasn't somehow become fantastic as a result, or that something you can't account for seems to keep success at bay despite doing what the books and videos say, then you know where to find me.

 

 

WHAT'S IN YOUR ESCAPE KIT?

I had an insight yesterday, a new way of looking at what it is I do. From the inside, I've always known that my activities as a writer who does work as a coach and trainer are connected. Part of that, I knew, was to do with creativity and language. Now though I see the potential those domains have as providing tools for liberation. Another way to say that is to acknowledge, whatever it is we're doing, we're constrained by what we believe our situation to be. As much freedom as our current condition gives us, sooner or later its limitations will become apparent, and at that point an escape kit is needed. And, there are a lot of occasions when life will get better quicker if you consult someone like me, with a knack for the kind of lock-picking needed to escape what Blake called our 'mind forg'd manacles'.

I worked with an artist once. She usually painted with whatever colours interested her. But for a while she'd just been painting in shades of blue. The work she was producing was great, but she wanted restored access to the full rainbow. As she talked about her experience, she touched her left arm, and that led me to ask how she saw her painting process work. She envisaged a pot of blue paint towards her elbow, which travelled through tubes into her hand to guide what she did with a brush. It made sense to her, and that's what matters. We all have interesting ways of coding our experience, and that was one of hers. I suggested that further up her arm, towards her shoulder, was a dial connected to a pipe that fed paint to her pot. And the dial could be set to whatever colour she wanted. Next day, she was painting with the whole spectrum as she had been before.

To help someone escape, you have to respect how they're boxed in. Telling the artist that she needed to just toughen up and splash other paints about wouldn't have acknowledged whatever internal conditions had led where she was at this point. I didn't need to know what those conditions were, but it made sense that if something in her came up with that solution, it would be wise to honour the wisdom of that choice.

There are ways to learn about how you function and using their logic is helpful if only because whatever within you came up with that logic clearly likes it, which makes it an elegant way to game the system. Naturally, I am my own guinea pig for these explorations. One time I saw someone I recognised but didn't know where from. I realised in attempting to figure that out I wanted to associate him with a place, so mentally inserted him in a variety of settings where I might know him based on how he was dressed. In each case I got a 'no' feeling in my gut.  Then I figured that 'how he was dressed' was itself a constraint. He was in a pretty snappy outfit at that point, so I imagined him in another outfit - straight away my mind produced an image of him in a white lab coat. Of course - it's the dude who works in the pharmacy I go to!

Those are two small examples of escapology - the artist from her blue period, me from my inability to recognise someone. I have bigger and more dramatic examples of this kind of approach. But it'd be easier then to be impressed by the content of the story and not pay attention to the details of how - as in these instances - a person's means of conceiving who they are and how they do what they do necessarily provides the clues needed to escape whatever limitations that model has built in.

Much of what I do in coaching and training is support people to consider the way they function in a new light. With that insight it's possible to transform those defaults we have into ones that offer us more scope to be who we'd like to be. That's where it overlaps with my writing - stories are often about how people go through a process of transformation of whatever sort and scale. In time, that new way of being will itself reveal limitations, and so on, and that's fine - there's always another Russian doll waiting to incorporate a bigger sense of our capabilities and possibilities.

 

 

 

 

THE PROBLEM WITH LIVING YOUR DREAM IS YOU'D BE SLEEPWALKING

I realised something was up for sure the second time I managed to upset a friend with some misplaced snark. Same had happened with someone else who matters in my life the previous day. Drive-by shootings like that aren't my usual style.

Unsettled, I continued the day paying more attention to how I was feeling and what was going on with my internal chatter. In the evening, I passed a homeless guy. He was in my field of view, and got caught up in whatever churning ugliness was happening with me at that moment.  And I realised that wasn't good enough. 

There wasn't even a quid in the coins I handed him, but they were all I had. And I gave him half of the cookies I'd just bought to snack on. It wasn't about him being homeless, particularly. More that it wasn't fair I'd caught him up in whatever nonsense was going on within me. Something enabled me to see that happening as it happened. And that meant an opportunity to do something else. Immediately I felt lighter, and realised I was happy again - or at any rate content, and not spraying those I came across with the day's detritus.

The intent, by the way, isn't to approach the world in a stupor of positivity. But at least give it a fair chance, rather than draping it with the day's cognitive gunge courtesy of the latest political upsets, social media chatter, and reheated moods.

There's no shortage of ways to deal with this kind of stuff. I've explored plenty, got results from time to time with quite a few. Careful though - some people call such interventions brainhacking, and that doesn't bring to mind images I'm happy with. Besides, any method to reset yourself that can be described in three cheery steps or a 2 minute YouTube video probably doesn't offer much of real value.

I've been fortunate to have some extraordinary mentors over the years. As I wrote the last paragraph I was reminded of a nugget from one of them: knowledge is self. Which is to say, all you can ever really know is you. You are the lens through which you experience the whole caboodle. Family. Love. Work. Health. Money. All of it.

Anyway, even if one of those three step processes or videos is helpful, it won't be for long. We are more complex than the means by which we seek to be what we'd like to be. And that means we need to be wily. Hence the words of another much loved mentor: 

It is recommended to break habits, any of them, from the silliest to the most serious, and to try and do things that you don't normally do - breaking up routines and habits and not making a routine or habit out of breaking routines and habits is a Zen koan which you can puzzle your way through. It will reward you richly with moments of incredible insight, intuition and all of those magical things that light up life so beautifully.

(Thank you, K.G.)

All of this, by the way, will also serve to give you a feel for how I approach the work I do with coaching clients. I'm not interested in magic bullet solutions because I've yet to meet anyone with a magic gun. I like working with individuals keen to embrace their uniqueness, not people who want to experience someone else's idea of success because they're uncomfortable with who they are. Whether you're looking to build a business, open a restaurant, or sing to an audience of thousands, I want you to do that your way and not someone else's. Other people are there to learn from, sure enough. But when you wake up in the morning, it's a warts and all person who's doing that - bedhair and bad breath included - and that's the one I want to work with.

 

 

 

 

YOU'RE NOT ON A HERO'S JOURNEY. DEAL WITH IT.

There's a myth going round that we're heroes, or at any rate can be. It's a myth that started with Jung, infected Hollywood, and is now rippling through the personal development and marketing communities like avocados on Instagram. And it's a myth about a myth. One known as The Hero's Journey.

Joseph Campbell was a student of Jung. Influenced by his mentor's fascination with archetypes and an interest in stories, he discovered that stories have an archetypal structure. Just the one, hence he called it the monomyth. The fact that he boiled down thousands of stories from hundreds of cultures and concluded there was actually just the one story should raise an eyebrow. It's reminiscent of the bit in Hitchhiker's Guide where the entry in the Guide for Earth reads 'Mostly harmless' - and that's the longer revised version.

For sure, Campbell discovered something when he distilled all those myths and legends and folklore into one handy dandy template. George Lucas consulted Campbell when he made the first Star Wars film. Thanks to Chris Vogler, who wrote a memo about it when he worked at Disney that shaped films including The Lion King, Campbell's monomyth has become the default shape of Hollywood films for a couple of decades now. You know the one. The hero is called to do something that disrupts their life and ultimately answers a fundamental question for them, in the process changing them for ever more thanks to an experience of rebirth. Neo in The Matrix, getting the cheat codes for reality. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, redeeming himself from a meaningless life through love. Any film where an unlikely mentor supports our plucky hero in their hour of need, eg Splinter - the giant rat who teaches ninjutsu to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And who could forget Legally Blonde?

Boil a story down to the essence it has in common with thousands of others, and by definition you lose what makes it unique. And there's something too conveniently Hollywood-friendly about Vogler's condensed take on Campbell. The success of Marvel's superhero movies suggests that filmgoers are tiring of the tried and tested. That might seem counterintuitive given how self-evidently heroic Marvel heroes are, and yes - they have their own kind of saminess. True, but it's only part of the story. Part of what audiences are loving in Marvel films is the way characters recur. And it's in those multiple appearances we see them in a new light. Captain America, hero in his own film, is the butt of jokes in other Marvel movies. Black Panther was clearly the star of his own movie, but in Infinity War he's got a supporting role. Iron Man has a major but not lead role in Infinity War, and if anyone's the protagonist it's Thanos - and he's the villain, in a film which also cheats audience expectations powerfully with its ending and yet is still doing huge box office.

Research demonstrates that when Japanese people respond to a painting, they are concerned with its setting, taking the whole in. Americans focus instead on the dominant image, particularly if it's of a person. And there's something about that which connects with the American Dream, the notion that anyone can go from log cabin to Whitehouse. That's the story of the entrepreneur too, a strong-willed individual who is driven by their dream to change the world and profit from it. Not much sense of the context and supporting cast in that picture - the market which might simply be ready for someone's idea and wasn't a year before when someone else tried the same idea, a handy beta for their successor. Then there are employees, whose talent and hard work created the detail of the founder's dream without which it would be vaporware. And what about suppliers and customers?

The point isn't to be picky, but to present a different picture. It's something that can be seen in Japanese work culture. In the day, working together as a team, colleagues collaborate to achieve outcomes. It's at night when they socialise together that it's acceptable to criticise bosses when alcohol is a means of expressing truths that would be less tolerable in the office. There's a sense of communal endeavour, and setpiece boardroom chestbeating and people standing their ground don't figure in it in the same way.

These differences of perspective matter. Not least at a time when strong-willed individuals in the form of billionaire oligarchs and the politicians they bankroll are carving up the world for their advantage and willing to sacrifice others in pursuit of their greed. Back in the day, a strong-willed individual like James Stewart would stand up for what was right in the films of the day. Today's political titans are more likely to speak on behalf of an oil lobby-funded belief that climate change is a myth, wilfully oblivious to the bigger picture we're all part of. 

Do we need people willing to take risks and make sacrifices? Sure. And we need them to do so in alliance with others rather than through their pig-headedness. Another of the central tenets of the Marvel movies is that superheroes were once like you and me before being granted their powers. It's as a team and with shared goals that they get to put the world to rights - and that doesn't mean in their own image, because as Peter Parker learned tragically when he became Spider-Man, 'with great power comes great responsibility'.

Countless websites detail coaches and trainers who reckon they fit the role of mentor in your Hero's Journey. Can you really imagine Frida Kahlo or Martin Luther King attending a seminar on manifesting their hero within? Even as a typology, the Hero's Journey is just one of those available. Vladimir Propp checked out Russian folklore and mythology a decade or two before Campbell and came up with something equally valid. Propp's schema is not as glamourous, noting as it does the likelihood of the hero being scarred along the way, and doing a lot of their work without even being recognised. That's not going to go down well on a weekend workshop, which as much as anything are about inflating the participants' sense of who they are and what they can achieve. 

Take a note from the Japanese. When you're being sold someone's big heroic story, ask questions which will give you details about who else was involved, and the environment which supported their success. And do it over a beer. It's great that we have ideas and do things to make them come true - but the Hero's Journey fuels the story that change happens without a social and economic context to make it possible, and that's a myth we can do without.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHATEVER IT TAKES

It wasn't long after I got my first job as a copywriter that I heard about how a rival agency won a pitch. Asked to present concepts for what promised to be a substantial account, not only did they make a good show of the work they did, they went above and beyond. Making a bit of razzle dazzle out of it, they led the client out to the front of the building. A new car was sitting there. To indicate their excitement and commitment about working together, they gave the keys to the client. She took them. And the agency won the account. It was unclear whether the story was being told out of disgust, or grudging admiration.

The next agency I work for, a big London one, I got to see how things sometimes worked when one of the directors showed me some previous work they'd done. I was looking at a leaflet campaign for a premium retail store seeking staff, and asked why they used that approach and not run an ad in a newspaper. Turned out they'd done that, but too many of the candidates who applied were off-brand. Which is to say, they were black, or at any rate not white. So the leaflets targeted a suburb where well brought-up young white women were to be found, which is who the department store  wanted to be selling to their customers.

A few years later, in Nottingham, I was developing scripts and meeting people who were getting short films made and occasionally worked in radio and television. Two guys hatched a sitcom, and got some funds to make a pilot episode. They came along to a shindig for the regional screen agency, and thanked the chief exec for support received to an audience of people hoping for similar backing. Only, the screen agency had nothing to do with the money that the sitcom got. The chief exec was pals with the chaps who'd made it though, who sang his praises in return for the prospect of future collaboration.

I mention all of this in the light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. They made dark use of data harvested illegally from Facebook, and using a combination of digitally-assisted psychological profiling and good old-fashioned skulduggery delivered election results that some pretty unpleasant clients paid handsomely for.

The thing being, none of this is surprising.

Cambridge Analytica are only different in the scale that they operate on. The targeting the department store colluded in with the London ad agency was no different in principle, or lack of it. There are people in businesses worldwide who would behave in exactly the same ways, and clients everywhere more than happy to pay for results.

The guys behind the sitcom caper are classic cases in point. They'd think of themselves as decent sorts, just doing whatever it takes to get by in a cut-throat industry. So they cut throats. One in particular would justify his actions by frequent use of the term 'realpolitik'. Being prepared to do anything to get your result is ok if there's a German word for it.

As you go about your business today, what ethical choices will you be faced with? And how will you deal with them?

 

MORE THAN A FAILING

I trust the third mind more than I trust my own.

William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, or both of them, coined the phrase when they worked together in a period that resulted in the cut-up technique David Bowie later picked up and played with as a tool in his songwriting. With cut-up, reassembling a text or combining it with another is a way of forging or exposing new connections through randomness. That's one example of what can be thought of as another mind at work. When two minds come together in ways that spark, they occupy a space that can effectively be considered a third. There comes a point in collaboration when the notion of who came up with a particular idea is redundant. When it flows, the process generates solutions as they're needed, and laying claim to them is an exercise that usually starts with ego and ends in bitterness. 

I've seen it in action plenty of times. It's one of the reasons I love working with others, rather than being resolute in believing that squeezing my brain juices over a project is inevitably the best solution. My brain juices are fine - and cocktails are even better. 

On the recently created Projects page of this site, there's a newly completed audio version of my play Breaking In. Thanks to a lack of foresight, we did the recording session with the actors in a way that didn't lend itself to a naturalistic production with sound effects creating the ambience of different locations. Oops. Only, why let that limit us? A lot of the most interesting art in the last century parted company with naturalism a long time ago. 

Brian Eno nailed it with his Oblique Strategy card, 'Turn a seeming disadvantage to your advantage'. Which is itself another take on 'Necessity is the mother of invention'. In this instance, I turned to Darren Bourne for a solution, confident that the man who comes up with the music of halF unusuaL would have a trick up his sleeve. Turns out he did. In playing with the voices of the two actors - a cut-up of sorts - Darren hit upon a shimmering glow of a soundscape, that in its numinous quality nails the emotional core of the story, about a couple whose efforts to find love on a weekend break remain seemingly out of reach, though each yearns for that experience. That musical theme is threaded through the play at appropriate moments, and marks out the scenes in a far more interesting way than doors slamming, the crunch of footsteps on gravel, and the ambience of a hotel bar, which is what might have happened otherwise.

Treasure mistakes. Eno again: 'Honor thy error as a hidden intention.'

Sometimes the third mind pops up after a first connection in another seemingly unrelated context. I spent a day on a new project with a client in London last week. We hit on a very distinctive visual metaphor that we are developing as an actual image. A few days later, the very same image came up in the context of a Tarot reading someone did for me, and in talking about it the reader hit on the core of the work that had been done a few days previously, work she was unaware of. 

Question your instincts. When I wrote the short film White Lily, the male and female roles were scripted intentionally in a way that hopefully cut against gender stereotypes. Later, in rehearsals, the first couple of times we did it as written. Siddhii Lagrutta wanted to swap the roles though, or at any rate find out what happened when we did. That's what we ran with - there was an extra energy and dynamic to the resulting relationship between her and David McCaffrey that director Tristan Ofield and I recognised and responded to. I'd accidentally written the parts the wrong way round.

Earlier tonight, a filmmaker sent me a rough cut of a piece we're developing. We'd come up with ideas of how we wanted to work together, but as interesting as they were, he couldn't follow them through with conviction. Where he's ended up instead is somewhere neither of us had anticipated, and all the more interesting as a result. Any endeavour has a life of its own. Go with that, rather than be limited by your initial conceptions of it.

There's a time and place for following the map you've created between you. But all too often the treasure hasn't been marked on that map, and only shows up after the fact. Ideas flow when you're onto something. Learn to go with that, and you'll leave safe harbours behind and discover brave new worlds. We'll find tomorrow there, not by turning over the bones of yesterday's concepts and mistaking the women and men who came up with them for the power of the ideas they came across when they plugged into the third mind.

 

 

 

 

 

WOLF MOON

In some traditions the first full moon of the year is called a wolf moon. We had one last night, and there'll be another this evening. You don't have to buy into everything to do with that metaphor to accept the romance of it. Oh, and New Year? That's a metaphor too. Our world is rotating as it always has. Any notions of there being something new about that come from the science, the history, the stories we drape over raw elemental reality to make it bearable to us. With a bunch of words in place, we can tell ourselves we know what's going on, as long as we stop where those words indicate and don't peer beyond. We don't want to fall off the edge.

Where stories come in useful is when they provide pointers. What becomes apparent with the notion of a wolf moon is a connection to our primal state. Wolves are thought of as solitary creatures, but in truth are pack animals whose sensory skills attune them beautifully to their environment. That's something we can learn on, and if the idea that the year is new is a prompt to contemplate our lives in relation to wolves, where does that take us?

"No wolf drags a long bag of yesterdays behind them today." Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes. 

I removed a whole bunch of stuff that didn't belong in my bathroom and chucked it out - a big bag of yesterdays. And the reason they were there, in part, is because of another yesterday that I realise I drag with me: the one that says I shouldn't throw stuff away, because it might be useful. That one was given to me by parents who grew up during World War Two, particularly a mother who was an evacuee with powerful emotions attached to those few things she took to Devon when she was sent there from London as a child.

Odds are you'll have had some success on your journey to date, maybe achieved some of what's important to you in life, and yet - the world continues to frustrate either your progress or your understanding. Whichever it is, it's a phenomenon that results from the stuff we cart around with us, even if it's the belief that we don't. One pernicious aspect of some contemporary thinking is that our past can be overwritten just so. Another is that we are able to have whatever we want, with no obligation to the web of social structures that allow us to be granted our desires. In different ways, both are expressions of the myth of the lone wolf.

Wolves look after each other pretty well, it turns out. It takes fucked-up thinking to mess yourself and others up, the legacy in part of language. We can believe impossible things before breakfast, and do the same for other meals too. Some of those thoughts become works of surpassing beauty and power - a design for a house made from recycled materials, an effective cancer treatment, an opera, a business plan that creates jobs in an impoverished community. Others are harmful, to ourselves or others - an obsession with an ex, a belief that money is a bad thing, hatred for a neighbour, addiction to alcohol. They all start as ideas, woven into our thinking and bodies, and then shaping what we do and the way we do it.

I say this as someone who is both an award-winning screenwriter, and an expert self-saboteur. Just now it took me 45 minutes, speaking to 4 people at a bank, to untangle a problem it turns out was my fault. I dealt with it promptly, and stayed calm throughout - two things which wouldn't have happened in the past. Plus I have dealt with the issue in question, sorting it promptly and without anguish. Change doesn't just take insight, it requires commitment.

How's your 2018 looking? What excites you? What's holding you back? In either case, do you know for sure that you can accomplish what you'd like? Especially if you've been down this road before, and have explored counselling, coaching, therapy, to help you get more of what matters to you, and less of what doesn't, you'll know that the start of the year is a time for anxiety as well as excitement. That's fine - and you're still faced with the potential to be more of the person you are at your best, today as any other day.

With an ally to support you, things don't get any easier. The value is in having an ongoing conversation where you're called on to be real, and accountable. To examine what you're still carrying from the past and do something special with it, whether that means sorting out what you don't need and is no longer true, or building something magnificent to showcase what you're capable of - a business goal, a life dream, a creative ambition. I've supported people as they've made all of those things happen. For some, that's plenty. For others, there's that extra thing that needs working on - especially if you've succeeded in making good stuff happen but sense there's still something missing. 

I don't do much formal paid 1:1 work with people in part because my primary focus is on creative projects. And my approach is not for everyone. I ask questions you won't find in the books and workshops that coaches have typically learned from - because I'm interested in getting to grips with what's going on with you, not applying someone else's models. My role is not to be your cheerleader, though I'll applaud if you really are doing what you want, and together find ways to make doing what you want and need more straightforward and more effective. Big shows of dynamic performance don't impress me - I'm about making it the most natural thing in the world to do more of what you sincerely want to do, not putting energy where it's wasted. If you're up for your ideas and sense of who you are being challenged in the name of experiencing more of what matters for you, we can talk. An initial conversation, in person or on Skype, will cost nothing and give us a sense of whether we want to work together. You can also check out these audio pieces I've done giving examples of what it is I do. 

You'll have gathered I'm not a lone wolf. I'm a proud member of several packs. And there are times I call, to see who will respond.

 

 

SIGN OF THE TIMES

The tram bulges with people wanting release. A few days ago there was a hint of seasonal cheer getting about town, but the other side of Christmas suspicion is once again the default mode, goodwill depleted on unwelcome relatives and the stench of unfulfilled desires - to love and be loved, or at any rate get some decent presents. Step away from home's tensions, maybe snap up a bargain if you're lucky. 

I get off the tram to catch a Medilink bus over to Nottingham's biggest hospital. The service used to be free, now costs £1.20. No complaint about that, the fee an acknowledgement of the era we live in. It's 2017 - the NHS is headed by Jeremy Hunt, a habitual liar who co-wrote a book arguing for its privatisation, and the organisation's money is being pissed away on serial offender Richard Branson, who took the NHS to court protesting not only should he have won a contract to deliver children's health services in Surrey, but is entitled to compensation having lost.

Thankfully the hospital is just a convenient stopping off point, a stroll away from a walk in the grounds of Wollaton Hall with a friend. I spot her red coat, and we make our way to the utilitarian entrance, through to the other side. Only a wall separates us from a busy A road, but that's all you need when on the other side are deer, trees, and centuries-old paths. I was last here on Halloween, an impromptu decision to embrace older traditions that declared it a year-end, somewhere to reflect and refresh. Now another new year is close, and I'm Branson-greedy for a second bite of the cherry, this time with a berry-coated companion.

There's a tree stump we come on at just the right moment, discovered on my last visit. The centre is eaten away, but it's alive with mulch, mildew, and beetles. We sit and compare notes on the year, then make our way up an incline to a courtyard where a cafe can be found, and continue our conversation with coffees in hand. For both of us, there's a sense of moving forward with what matters to us, and too of being snared by the inevitable consequences of being social animals. We learn. We love. We get hurt. We carry on. Knowing people we can share our latest findings with makes the passage easier.

And then we're out of the park, arcing back towards where we started. We hug, the contact an affirmation as much as our words, and I branch off down Triumph Road. The name hints at the architecture of the university buildings dotted along it, eco-friendly optimistic designs demonstrating a faith in the future that works in its own right, but seems like a science fiction dream just a few streets away.

Austerity feels like hungry dogs wandering a neighbourhood that didn't seem so unsettling last time I passed through a few weeks ago. I could be mistaken for a bulked-up Travis Bickle from a distance, say behind the blanked-out windows of passing cars. Around here, I used to know people who ran projects for the community. There are children, but the parents with them walk fast and don't make eye contact - and why would they, if I look like Bickle? A teenager runs across the road and I can't tell if she's 14 or 34 by the time she gets nearer, in a white top with black Mickey Mouse faces, black skirt with white circles the same size as the rodent skulls, furry slippers with pom-poms.

The gun shop has crossbows and samurai swords in the window, too, and the only bigger stores are owned by adjacent bookmakers. Malevolent electricity trickles into the atmosphere throughout, a feel that anything could happen and possibly already is just a street away. Even some of the familiar names don't gel here - a pub converted into a supermarket that won't be showcased in the chain's annual report and may not last until the next is put together. It sits next to a car wash with the chill edge of a Mexican police operation. Stark white light frames an area set back from the road where men wield squeegees and buckets like they're anticipating conflict. 

Past threadbare Caribbean takeaways, minimalist barbers where all that's needed is a chair and a razor, a former corner pub now a Middle Eastern grill with a sign in the window promoting Bar Juice, and I stop at Asda. As well as picking up a few reduced items, I use the toilet. The swastika on the inside of the door that had been bleached off is inked in again.

 

 

 

 

 

LOOKING IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

Someone comes along, sees a friend under a streetlamp, looking for something.

'What have you lost?'

'My keys.'

'Where were they when you last saw them?'

'Over there.'

'So why are you looking here?'

'I need the streetlamp to see.'

Last night I went to the final evening of Nottingham's First Tuesday networking event, at least in the form it took under the fabulous and irrepressible Debbie Doodah. She's moving on, and leaving the event in the highly capable hands of her ThinkInNG allies. 

I remember a particular First Tuesday, a year or more back. One of the speakers was a guy who'd gone out of his way to tell Debbie about how she really needed to book him. Which is fair enough - you've got to be your own ambassador after all. And he came, and talked. He knew exactly what he was going to say,  and he said it, which is how people often do these things.

He told us about a book he'd read. In that book, the author left his job, inspired to train with some Hong Kong martial artists. Doing so helped him in all kinds of ways. Having read the book, the guy doing the talk decided - that he'd do the same thing himself. He went to Hong Kong. And had the same experience he'd read about, with the same martial artists.

How often is someone else's dream identical to yours? How likely is it that someone else has already hit on the very thing you need to make your heart sing, in the course of fulfilling their own dreams? 

The abiding sense I got from hearing this ostensibly successful man talk about how he'd replicated someone else's dream, was that he wasn't in touch with himself. That he knew what inspiration looked like...because he'd read about someone else's. And the best thing about that is - it's OK. There are times we all fail to challenge ourselves enough. That we take a peek outside our comfort zones and decide that someone else's success is what we want. Safer that, than risk finding out what it really is that gives your life purpose - and fail to bring it about.

Of course, I realised that having so often done the same. Not in quite so blatant a way as to arrange to pay strangers to beat me up in Hong Kong. But there've been times when I've wanted to have achieved what some of my creative idols have achieved. Grant Morrison say. Or Kate Tempest. Only, they got to do their thing and have it work by - doing their thing. And they in turn will have had role models and mentors who in time play less of a role in their own sense of self as they create more work that feels like who they truly are.

It's OK to want someone else's success. And a lot of the time, that's what coaching offers. Strategies that helped someone else achieve what was important to them. And that's great. But how often do borrowed clothes really fit?

I experience that old clothes stink when I hear the majority of coaches and trainers talk. Can hear in their words the books they've read, sometimes see the mannerisms of those who've trained them. And that makes me sad. Telling other people how to achieve whatever, as the local budget version of someone your clients would get more from if you had the guts to tell them to go to the source of whatever skills and knowledge you've gleaned. It's not for me, and if training with some of the people I learned from is going to be a better solution than working with me, I'll tell you that.

If I'm different, it's because my mentors are different. You'll notice the irony. And also, my life isn't defined by coaching and training. I'm an award-winning scriptwriter, who wrote and helped make a short film that recently played at a festival in Hollywood where it stood shoulder-to-shoulder with films made with much larger budgets and name actors. I've written a speech for a world champion boxer; successfully pitched to a team who masterminded some of the world's biggest film's franchises; been headhunted by a leading London ad agency; written TV drama for the BBC without having an agent to get the work for me. 

Those are things I mention because they're achievements. And, by the way, I've also been through the hell of being sectioned twice. Of recovering from that and being suicidal at times for most of a year. So when I talk about getting up and starting again, of looking at what you've got and thinking about it in another way, of finding ways to make the unlikely happen, I'm talking at first hand.

Let the stories of others be an inspiration. Let them surge through your veins, inform your choices, shape your dreams. But do not mistake them for what you're about. It's not what others have achieved that matters. The ways they accomplished it are largely irrelevant. What's important is that a spark was lit in you, or that seeing something outside allowed you to become aware of your spark inside. And it's the spark that counts. 

It's the spark that ignites the pilot light. Great name, huh? Pilot light. A light that guides you. And that's what matters more than anything. Yes, strategy matters. Resources count. Contacts are crucial. But above all nurture that spark. And if it grows when you're around a particular coach or trainer, then that's a good indication they're good for you. If not...then walk away - even if you have to make your way back from Hong Kong, because you realise that was the wrong direction and your feet ache because you're wearing someone else's shoes.

If that light is dimming in you, I can be a good person to talk with. If you want to discover what lies beyond your mentors and models, we can do that. If you've discovered you're living someone else's dream - a parent's, a role model's, whoever it may be - that's something we can talk about. And if you're getting the sense that whoever you've been getting coaching from is going through the motions, there's plenty we can discuss. You know where to find me. Now how about finding you?

 

TRIGGER HAPPY

Steely Dan plays in a Camden Market cafe as a toddler chirrups like a squeaky hinge. This carrot cake is the best, and my deep black coffee is smooth, frictionless. Rewind 12 hours and Steve Cowie and I are in conversation with Dotty, an amateur Egyptologist who has been on a glorious adventure since parting with his wife there and is now living in a hostel for trans people in London. Three hours before that she was an audience member who responded to the call for goddesses. We're at The Cockpit theatre in Marylebone and just two days before I was reading Alan Moore's introduction to a collection of Michael Moorcock stories - he speculates that Prince Elric of his fantasy stories lived in the area. Melnibone was wiped from our memories but peeks through Marylebone in its street markets and an open-fronted eaterie where walnut-skinned men serve us freshly cooked flatbreads with savouries of your choice. There is no menu, instead we point and when we leave are asked for just £10. By this time we've seen spirits invoked by a sage couple who administer non-denominational funerals. Death makes you hungry. John Higgs riffed with lyrical power about identity rooted not in nation but in geography. Salena Godden's poems again spoke of death and the urgency of fucking and feasting your all as it motors towards you. And Daisy Campbell shared hope and magic and thoughts of community. This is a community I'm proud to be part of, and Daisy's at the hub. We all are potentially - Charles Fort reminds us that we measure a circle beginning anywhere. And if we extend that community through time as well as space Fort is there too, inspiring Robert Anton Wilson to look more at those things that don't fit. His polio was cured using a technique developed by a nurse who not only failed the era's credibility test by failing to be a doctor, but to make matters worse Sister Kenny was a woman. Wilson's freewheeling sense of inquiry takes him to work at Playboy where he gets to meet Tim Leary, William Burroughs, and Alan Watts among others. Those experiences transmute into the Illuminatus trilogy which Daisy's dad Ken stages in a legendary theatrical incarnation in Liverpool, just by the crossroads that might be the very one that featured in a dream Jung believed to be the most powerful of his life. And all of that and more went into Cosmic Trigger, the autobiographical text Wilson went on to write, and which Daisy has made more theatrical magic from in a four hour spectacle of epic questing, zesty jesting, mind-refreshing beauty and chaos. Out of that concoction the actor playing Wilson, experiencing a psychedelic transcensexual serial (episode isn't big enough) hands me a random Tarot card. Time and the fourth wall are broken and I am accelerated through my own Wilsonian adventures. Lovesexdeath all activated by and activating intelligence. I find myself. I find myself staring. I find myself staring at the card in my hand. The 6 of Disks. Success.

THE DISTINCTIVE ODOUR OF BULLSHIT

There are phrases that cause you to pause, and wonder exactly what was just said. A pivotal one for me was when an account director at an ad agency I worked at in the 90s showed me some leaflets promoting jobs at a department store. I asked why they'd chosen to do that rather than go the more conventional route of a newspaper ad. "We tried that," he said, "but the ethnic response was too high."

I knew something significant had happened, but it took me a while to untangle the knotty meaning from the apparently straightforward packaging in which it was presented. The speaker had been so comfortable in what he was saying that its full ugliness wasn't immediately apparent. What he meant was, too many black people had applied for the jobs. The idea of 'too many' is an interesting one, and seems to suggest that a threshold had been breached. In this case, it came down to a nice middle class department store not wanting to dismay its customers with non-white faces. Only, in the meeting where the decision to create the leaflet was cooked up, I'm confident neither account handler nor the store's HR person would have used words like race or discrimination - they just wanted the store's staffing to be on-brand. Hence, put flyers through doors in leafy suburbs where reassuringly pale people could be found, who would remind shoppers of their nephews, nieces, grandchildren.

If there'd been a smoking gun document about that meeting and the thinking involved, I'd have passed it on to The Guardian or Private Eye. But the nature of such discussions is they happen in person - more often than not, man to man. For me it guaranteed that, sooner or later, I'd be gone from that agency. Having grown up among my father's students, who came from Malaysia, Ghana, Hong Kong, Uganda and elsewhere, I knew where I stood - had since I was about 7, when one of dad's Nigerian students told us that a tailor he'd asked to make him a jacket asked if he should leave room for sir's tail.

Bigots have no joy, no humour about them. Anything like that in you shrivels up when you choose to look at the world through the bone-framed lenses of the fearful and greedy. You need them, to give you distance, and witness a world that's going to the dogs (and not the way dad did when he took his students to Hall Green greyhound track to show them a bit of British culture). Loneliness makes you paranoid say mental health researchers, and one of the easiest ways to be lonely in a world as big as ours is by deliberately making other people 'them' and contrasting that group with an ever-dwindling 'us'.

We all warp reality in our own special ways, and make language do awkward things to fit what we want to get across, but there's a particular variety of it done by people with power that's instructive to watch. It was the odious Tory Grant Shapps who introduced me to the curious expression 'misspoke', when he used that word to express some lies he'd been caught in. Using 'misspoke' has some tentative implication that actually, Shapps had every intention of being a straight-up guy, but just as he was about to drop some truth some bollocks came out instead.

And now Labour's Diane Abbott has used the phrase. She had all the right numbers lined up in her head to explain how the party will pay for 10,000 cops, but rubbish fell out of her mouth. Like when you're eating, and crumbs bail out. Hillary Clinton said she misspoke too, when describing how she dodged bullets in Bosnia - which didn't happen. 

Getting things wrong is fine. It's what human beings do. What 'misspoken' does is position the speaker as some kind of superhuman, whose heart is pure but whose mind became mush and let tumblewords fall from the hole in heir face, perhaps due to the Kryptonite of an astute question or awkward observation.

Politicians believing they're more than human is just as unhelpful as bigots believing some people are subhuman. It's the same crap, which draws a distinction between the speaker and the world at large. I'm pretty sure I'll fall for it myself again soon, maybe even later today. But at least I know what to watch out for.

 

 

 

THE PATTERNS WE MAKE AS WE DECORATE TIME

Let me tell you about my brother. I don't speak about Nigel much. Partly it's to do with that thing about someone being dead - there's a moment where it seems relevant to mention it in conversation which leads the other party to say they're sorry when actually it happened so long ago that such a nicety seems redundant. Also, I pretty much wrote him off before his death. He was stealing from and violent to our mother, who was running a launderette in the Erdington area of Birmingham, where the kindest people around were her criminal neighbours.

B23 was an interesting area. Those criminal neighbours? They described another local as looking like a solicitor, because the only time they came across a woman dressed like that was in court. The clothes didn't make her family above the law - her younger brother had been trained as a toddler by his mum to crawl through a narrow opening at a Spanish hotel that gave him access to valuables kept safe for guests. For his mother he brought back jewellery, and she praised him for that, and years later in Birmingham those birds were coming home to roost. His suited sister worked at a car rental place, not as a solicitor.

My parents had divorced, and Nigel lived with mum at a couple of places before getting somewhere of his own. And he came back, as described, which is why there was a court order barring him from being near mum at the point he was killed. It happened when Nigel was over in Lichfield where dad lived, probably to celebrate dad's birthday, since that was the date he and some pals stole a car. Nigel was driving when it smashed, and dad was asked to identify remains, only there wasn't much of him left to recognise, so they had to use dental records.

I got a garbled version of what had happened in a call at the ad agency I was working in Holborn. Mum seemed to think Nigel was alive and in hospital, but a friend and neighbour took the phone and said "He's dead Adrian. He's dead." I went to the top of the stairs to take this in, an area people used to smoke. I think I may have asked someone there for a cigarette. Whether I did that or not, I told him what I'd just heard and he said as he went back in to the office "No use crying over spilt milk." 

The funeral procession set off from my mums's flat above the launderette. She was trying to sell the business at the time - had planned to anyway, and Nigel's death accelerated the process. There was a call that morning from someone who'd viewed the place a couple of times and was making interested noises. They knew the funeral was happening so I passed the phone on to mum, assuming they were going to say something kind and awkward. Instead, the caller - making the most of experience of doorstepping grieving parents acquired as a cop - wanted mum to knock a few grand off the price if she agreed to a quick sale. These are things that happen.

There isn't a place on your map for some experiences. That was one. Another transpired when the funeral procession moved off. Without any planning, the route chosen took us past all the places we'd lived as a family, in the order we'd lived in them. Nigel's life became a journey more or less up and off the A34, passing from Shaw Drive in Acocks Green to Peveril Drive in Hall Green and ending up travelling down School Lane in Hockley Heath, where he was buried about a mile away from where we'd lived for something like 7 years. Tracing that path made it a lot harder to hold Nigel in my mind as someone who treated mum badly.

If you saw that journey in a film you'd think it was contrived. But geography is etched with history in ways it's hard to fathom. And your history and mine and all of ours is there in the streets we walk, the paths we take and choose not to, the woods we enter and ones we wouldn't. It's not that films are contrived, more that it takes something like a death to see the shape of your life, which is what cinema can explore. We're so immersed in the living of it, the idea that in doing so we're creating layers and lines, shading and shapes, passes us by. 

Tonight I did something new. It's Good Friday, and a friend performed in a choir doing Faure's Requiem in an old church in Bottesford. Exactly the sort of thing I don't do, and even better for doing it. The music itself, in that space, was beautiful - I've lately been listening to hiphop, electronica, and heavy metal, and choral music is a whole other thing.

What made it magical was the choir hadn't all met before today. They gathered with some knowledge of the forty minute piece, and a conductor to guide them, someone to play the organ, and a couple of soloists for the showcase bits. And after rehearsing, they sang - and shimmered, and shone, and shadows dissolved. I reckon that's pretty punk - a group of strangers getting together for a single performance, then going their separate ways. No record contracts, no tour bus, no reviews.

That gathering happens every year in the same place at the same time with a different choral piece and a choir that has different people whenever they assemble, including some who are there consistently. Every one of those who come to sing or listen has been affected by death somewhere along the line, and all participated in a ritual to connect those present with the intentional death of a man we're told died for us all.

Christianity is not my belief system of choice, but for tonight at least I felt its power, and understood some of why it connects people over centuries. Something about that experience was magical, and it's in the ability to be lost in something bigger - because, in the nicest possible way, whatever 'it' is, it really isn't about you or me. It's about the pattern that connects, as Gregory Bateson put it, whether in the form of a choir that coalesces once a year, or a funeral procession that charts a family's years together.

 

 

 

DEFYING HOMOGENOPOLIS

The picture heading this piece up is one of several I took of a guy dancing to the music a talented saxophonist was playing, as he busked outside a store that had closed in the centre of Nottingham. A new shop has replaced the failed one, with peristaltic inevitability. Just don't ask me what it is. All I can tell you is it's one or other of the branded stores that you can find anywhere round the world, for the convenience of consumers who believe that a familiar logo will present them with peace of mind in whatever transaction they want to make.

A brand is a promise and a promise is a lie, more often than not. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to whoever made them in your area. There might only be one provider, and hopefully they'd know what they were doing. Maybe there was more than one, each offering something the other couldn't. Now, it's a different story - and remember that word story. There are many shoe shops in town, differentiated by arcane marketing methods according to the demographics of the area. Somewhere down the line, data has been crunched and a customer profile concocted, and lo and behold - you're no longer a fully fledged human being. Instead you're a consumer, noteworthy only for how you spend your money, and funneled by the full panoply of advertising and marketing techniques to the right shoe shop for members of your tribe. You could be in Brussels or Los Angeles, and much the same would apply.

This process of homogenisation is predicated on a lie, remember?  Brands promise consistency - of service, of outcome - when neither are possible in the world we inhabit. We want to believe that, and to do so we get involved in creating distortions, using additives to ensure our company's sauce has the same colour and flavour throughout the year even though the provenance and quality of the ingredients changes. I read recently about some customers of an American food chain called Chipotle complaining about leaves in the food they ordered. Which there were. Bayleaves. To create a particular flavour. I wonder if Chipotle will acquiesce and remove the bayleaves or use a powdered form in future, so customers aren't troubled by reality. The customers themselves are blameless - it's not typical in the experience of eating at a takeaway you're presented with bayleaves. Bit by bit they've disappeared from popular consciousness, like the rosemary bush that grew outside the McDonalds near where I live and then wasn't there one day.

I don't know what store has replaced the one in the photo. I do know I'll remember the saxophonist and the dancer for a long time. They made me smile. They were a beautiful interruption to my day. A spark of humanity and humour, something unprogrammed and all the more delightful for that. Sure, the busker was asking for money - but he wasn't promising or implying that my earnings would increase as a result, that my cholesterol would decrease, that relationships within my family would improve. That's the branding lie, the one we hear countless times every day here in Homogenopolis.

There's a book. Spirits of Place, edited by John Reppion. And it explores a whole variety of places, from Rajagiriya in Colombo, and the various places in Iceland where elves are discussed with more seriousness than they tend to be elsewhere, to the sea forts of Southend and the streets of Mexico City. It's a rich and rewarding collection of essays from a variety of contributors, the most celebrated being Alan Moore. Thanks to this book I'm now eager to explore more of the work of Vajra Chandrasekera, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Williams and others. In very different ways, they all succeed in excavating the intertwined histories and mythologies of areas they have a connection with, and how those intricate stories affect the way people do what they do, irrespective of the ravenous ticktock of the branded world.

You are who you are in large part because of where and when you are. Pay attention to the pulse of what's happening around you. We've been deceived, told that what is presented on screens by some or other organisation that you matter to only as a consumer is more important than what's unfolding at the end of your road. And it's simply not true. Not far from the end of my road is Rachel, who in the course of running a charity to support women and children refugees vulnerable to sexual exploitation has made media appearances. On a tv show she spoke on Rachel was asked not to say words like terrorist and ISIS, which limited what she could speak about and made her message more generic, less likely to scare advertisers or bring truth into someone's midday viewing. 

It might seem that Starbucks has existed forever, but it's just another coffee shop among many. Go there by all means, but ask yourself why you've chosen that place to have your morning pick-me-up and not the cafe nearby run by a local family. The fact that Starbucks occupies a lot of your cognitive real estate doesn't actually make the coffee there any better. Maybe the local cafe will write your name on the cup, if that really matters to you. And sometimes locals will find a way to adapt the branded world to the way they like to do things. Cigarette papers are used just for that by everyone I know. But for some griots in Africa, putting a cigarette paper in the neck of their instrument gives kora strings a touch of distortion that's effective in some songs the wandering storytellers play

Interesting that one aspect of service Starbucks hit on was that - personal attention is something people will pay for, even if the truth of the matter is more complex. There are a couple of cafes in town which trip all the switches that say handcrafted and unique, but are owned by a conglomerate that's realised the value of not having a brand. And that McDonalds, which used to have the rosemary bush outside? Walking somewhere helps to stir my thinking, and sometimes it's to the McDonalds. I've spoken to a few people there, and heard their stories, like the woman who was planning her brother-in-law's funeral and turned 60 the same week.

A blue-haired teenager works there, with bright eyes that drink the world in. She grew up in Dubai, to an Egyptian/Palestinian father and Welsh mother, going to an international - ie American - school where when she left the librarian gave her a censored copy of 1984 with all the references to pigs and pork whited out. She saw me reading Spirits of Place, and liked the cover, and she was fascinated, growing up part of several worlds as she has, and with a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology at home. I popped in a couple of days back, and she told me she expects her copy of Spirits of Place to arrive any day. The rosemary bush is gone, but not the memory of it - the herb improves memory after all - and next time I see her I'll tell that tale, and ask for one of hers. It's what people do, and when we do it just because we can, and not with an eye on profit, we recover a little bit more of our humanity outside the reach of spreadsheet entries or MRI investigation, and which might lead you too to dance outside a vacated shop one day when you hear music that makes you shine.

When the weather is good, I walk further up the road, to a Portugese cafe, and though the original owner has moved on it's still a place I treasure, and remember my father taking her by the hand and dancing with her as Frank Sinatra played. Next time I tell that story, I might instead say a rhumba was on the radio, and that's fine too. Part of the beauty of stories, is that - unlike brands - there's never even the pretence of consistency.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us (and a quotations website reminds me) "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". Think about that next time you pass another shopfront promising familiar names at a newly opened store in Homogenopolis.