I’m at the end of week four of my one-year sabbatical from British Council. It’s been a month of finding my feet as a new freelancer, catching up with friends and colleagues I have had too little time for of late, and rediscovering the joy of professional conversations that have no pre-determined outcome. It’s been a revelation.
At British Council they call this a career break. But it’s not a break in my career - or at least I hope it’s not. It's some time away from the big machine, and the managing of a big team, and the feeling that the more senior I had become the further I was from the work I went there to do. Of course it’s a privilege to have a job in an extraordinary organisation like the British Council. But it’s not an arts organisation (only 350 of the 11,000-strong international team work on the arts programme) and as someone who has worked in the cultural sector for 35 years I have been feeling a little drowned out by corporate noise. Inspiration was elusive and I had lost my joy. It was time to get some perspective.
My experience highlights a dilemma. Creative people should be at the management table of public organisations and must have a voice. But what do you do if - as a creative - you are in a minority at the table and your voice (even a loud one like mine) starts to feel tiny and insignificant? What if being at the table is actually quite boring and it’s a struggle to stay engaged? And what if the leadership we are charged with is really just overbearing management and there’s no time and space for the real stuff of working imaginatively with people and ideas?
In the weeks leading up to this break I read Julie Hesmondhalgh’s wonderful A Working Diary. I’d recommend it. Julie is brave and questioning in everything she does and in the book shares the fears and vulnerabilities as well as the joys and successes of life as a freelance theatre maker. She committed herself to the writing of it and it became part of her daily discipline. I have known Julie a little since she was a student in Accrington in the ‘80s and I wrote to say that her book had given me inspiration and courage. I told her I was taking a sabbatical and that I was fearful and excited all at once. ‘Leap, Greg’ she replied, 'and the net will appear’.
I don’t have the discipline to write every day but I have committed to writing this blog each month and to doing one thing each day – a cycle ride, a yoga class, meeting a friend, going to an event – that creates a structure but leaves space for thinking. I’ve been thinking about this space - currently, apparently, the repository of the national collection of gold glitter balls - which is about to be transformed into something even more wonderful and in which I will be playing a small part. But more on that story later…
A few months ago a friend, a senior leader in the cultural sector, told me that one of her values was generosity. I was going through a challenging time at work and this was a gift. I thought about it a lot and I practiced it. Flying solo I am now seeing it in others and being nourished by it. When my web site went live a month ago I received messages from people I knew well, and some I didn't know at all, inviting me for coffee, for lunch, just to have a chat. I have said yes to every invitation. They have come from artists and producers with questions, students with aspirations, movers and shakers who just offered to meet. The head teacher at the school opposite where I live asked me to come and talk to her students about careers in the arts and a famous Turkish writer invited me to her book launch. A group of creatives that I admire a lot invited me to the first sharing of the beautiful, ambitious and audacious international project they are developing. So I am reconnecting with people and with ideas and talking about some interesting work possibilities. But not one invitation or conversation has begun with a statement of a desired outcome and this has been rejuvenating.
Wild in Yorkshire
A highlight of the last year at British Council was working with my colleague Kathy McArdle (Director England and Cities) and the team at slunglow on the international elements of the Wild Conference in Leeds. Our very simple idea was to invite 30 social and cultural activists from around the globe to take part in the conference. Not to be speakers, but to join in and to speak when they felt moved to. By the time the conference happened this month I no longer had a formal role but slunglow asked me if I’d like to come anyway. More unexpected generosity. It was a wonderful two days around a campfire in the grounds of a stately home, with speakers from the widest range of backgrounds, interests and perspectives leading sessions in four tents. 450 delegates equipped with headphones joined them there, or walked in the woods, or lay around on cushions on the grass. The headphones were the thing. Each tent had its own frequency and all you had to do was tune into the associated channel and listen wherever you happened to be. And switch between talks. Or not tune in at all and strike up a conversation with a passing person. There were no lanyards, no speeches and no VIPs. The chair of Arts Council England stood in the falafel queue like everyone else.
Something about the conference format, and environment, and the intimacy allowed by the headphones invited contributors to speak authentically rather than ‘present’. It really worked because you were part of a conversation with the people around you and not in the audience of a lecture. Some of the conversations were very entertaining, some quite confronting, and at least one had me squirming in my seat. The contributions from our international guests – fresh voices from Jamaica, from Malawi, from Ethiopia, South Africa, Nigeria and the Philippines – were a highlight and led to many conversations on the fringes of the campfire. Be kind, be useful was the call to action at the conference opening and I think, in our own way, we all were.
I am writing this on the train home from Leeds, sitting next to two brilliantly animated women who are on their way to a Marxist weekend festival in my East London neighbourhood. Apparently one of the sessions is called ‘What will you wear to the revolution?’ All this is going to keep me going for quite a while.