A stunning start at Rich Mix on Monday evening to the Climate Quest 2016 organised by Leaders’ Quest and We Mean Business. The Quest could have been billed as FoNT, Friends of Nigel Topping, CEO of We Mean Business.
In any event, Phyllida Hancock of Olivier Mythodrama kicked off the 3-day jaunt with a session on Shakespeare – and, in particular, As You Like It – that left me gasping for more.
Happily, there was a 2-hour session on Wednesday morning with Phyllida, which I opted to join. One element of the process involved a small group of 7-8 of us (including Laurence Tubiana) being handed a piece of timber, being told it was a sword, and – in the spirit of As You Like It – being asked to consider which element of our defensive armoury we would now lay aside in the spirit of the play and of further development.
I chose to lay aside my use of humour as a social lubricant in boardrooms and C-suites, though I undermined the promise by not following earlier ‘It’s a Sword’ or ‘It’s a Big Stick’ renderings, and instead standing the stick on its end, noting that part of my role as court jester has been to stand things on their head.
Whereas some chose to think of the stick as a weapon, considering how they could stop beating their colleagues around the head, figuratively, it struck me that my positioning of the stick was symbolic. My role has often been to say that there is a big stick out there, in the form of NGOs and activists, and using the threat to encourage responsible behaviour – including more open engagement with civil society.
A glorious mix among the 50-60 invitation-only participants of (1) people I knew, (2) people I had heard of and wanted to meet, and (3) people I hadn’t met but enjoyed getting to know better. Happily again, there wasn’t a fourth category.
The Quest really made me think about what I’m going to do when I grow up. And about how to engage a wider audience around climate change and related challenges.
On Tuesday, I was part of a small group of perhaps 10 participants that went across to White City to meet David Gunn of White City Noise. We were introduced to the dynamics of a complex community in a bleak urban landscape where the BBC has traditionally been an oasis, or perhaps a ghetto, and where three developers are involved in what is billed as Europe’s largest redevelopment project.
Took me way back to my roots in city planning and public participation in the early 1970s. The high point, at least for me, was recording three choral (to put it politely) bursts in the stairwell of a high-rise building that will be demolished within three weeks. (My own contribution to one of these channelled a fading air-raid siren.) This was part of an acoustic palimpsest being compiled as a Requiem or Elegy to the BBC Television Centre’s East Tower.
Then, fizzing with ideas, our group took to the Tube again and made our way across to Waterloo for a lunch at the Travelling Through bookshop. We were greeted at the door by the owner, Emma Carmichael, very much like diplomats coming aboard a ship of the line. It only lacked the whistle.
A wonderful lunch in their basement café – then across to Lambeth Gardens, in the shadow of Lambeth Palace. Reminded me of several visits there hosted by Justin Welby, the Archbishop, who I had the pleasure of working with for several years as part of the Friends Life Committee of Reference.
One particularly memorable visit was to interview Justin for our book The Breakthrough Challenge, which I did while he was having his portrait painted for Durham Cathedral. (See 15 July 2013 entry here.)
We were taken under the energetic wings of Susana Silva and Natalia Cerqueira, two buskers who regularly perform on London’s Southbank. Call it denial, but (despite the program) I had simply not considered the possibility that I would be called on to make a musical instrument, co-write a song on climate change, and then perform it to all and sundry on the South Bank – hard by the skateboarding area.
But that’s what transpired, though not without a few hiccups along the way. When we were all asked to say who we were and where we were from, ahead of singing a song that was important to us, I came last in the cycle and dug in my heels.
Although the song Always Look On The Bright Side of Life came to mind later, as we walked to the place of execution, I side-stepped the request for a song, instead drawing the parallels between songs and stories, and telling the story of how Elaine recruited two French brothers who had been busking in Hyde Park Tube station to sing at a SustainAbility celebration.
They sang like the Everly Brothers and did Beatles songs. The one I asked for was Revolution, which for me is pregnant with significance for the work I have done over the years.
You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan
[Relevant for Brexiteers too, you might think.]
Then I noted that the sort of song that had first come to mind when I was asked to sing was whale song. One of my favourite albums of all time was Roger Payne’s Songs of the Humpback Whale, which I bought way back in the early 1970s.
Not being a Humpback or Blue, I find singing like a whale a bit of a challenge. But later in the process I did work out how to do a semi-passable rendition of both by growling and warbling into a large, empty water bottle.
Subsequent incidents meant that I had to kick off the singing on the South Bank, after which I stepped out to film. But enough to say that working with Susana and Natalia forced me to think long and hard about how we can best engage new audiences around climate change and wider sustainability issues.
In many ways, this Quest has come at a critical time for me and, indirectly, for Volans. Recent events in the wider world signal that an old order is coming apart far faster than most people imagined possible, while a new order is struggling to be born. This is the stuff of our ongoing work with the Business & Sustainable Development Commission and with the United Nations Global Compact.
To be in such company for several days has been a tremendous gift, for which I thank the IKEA Foundation among those already mentioned. Being part of such a gathering of such extraordinary people was a real pick-me-up and shake-me-up.
Apart from reading Shakespeare in a new light and following up on the myriad conversations that began as we moved from Rich Mix to the final sessions at the Ugly Duck in Shoreditch, I feel a growing need to help the entire movement jump to a different level.
The fish we passed on our way to an event on Tuesday evening at Global Generation’s Skip Garden, in King’s Cross, remained me of the symbolism of our own flying-fish-based logo.
In addition to standing for Fertility, Knowledge and Creativity, fish have also been seen as symbols of Transformation. The fish seemed to be jumping into a new space. That’s the trajectory we are now on, as we may like it or as we may not.