The Archaeology of this Generalist

The power of integrated, joined-up thinking is recognized and new generalists are required, able to grasp specialist knowledge as well as able to range across disciplines.

Charles Landry

I am not a very focussed person and it takes me a lot of effort to structure anything. I also just can’t hack doing proper research. Undismayed, not to say brazen, I have converted this evident intellectual laziness, if not inability, into a positive by making a virtue out of not being expert.

All of which makes me a proud generalist.

At its worst proper people see people like me as a butterfly, a pretty thing maybe, yet with little depth, flitting from flower to flower. These are often what I view as biassed supporters of the disastrous reign in the 20th Century of the Expert, who still come to plague us. Those of us who are indeed Generalists celebrate our phenomenon as a wide set of experiences, providing varied layers (strata) of competence that enrich our offer – and from which you can now benefit also!

It all began when I was three years old, a disastrous start in life that led to me being abandoned at seven years old and whose effects lasted well into my teens. But it taught me self-motivation, self-reliance and the desirability of utter self-sufficiency.

From that dates my respect for native intelligence.

My first break was being introduced to making music at age 9 and I spent all of my teens playing and singing. I went through all the voices from treble to bass and sang in a full choir, a male voice choir and a sixteen voice madrigal choir. I learnt classical piano up to Grade V including a year with a retired Canadian concert pianist who had me playing Chopin and Beethoven by the age of 11, the Chopin soloist in school concerts from the start.

Mid-teens I did two years violin, bowing somewhere on the back desk of the second violins and I was invited to become the pianist holding together the playing of our local junior schools string orchestra. At this time I also did two years basic classical composition, Britten being my great discovery at that time. I taught myself guitar and accordeon, eventually ending up working the revival folk music circuit and where I first encountered the McGarrigle Sisters at Cambridge Folk Festival, artists I was later to work closely with including their final concert at the Albert Hall before Kate died of cancer.

This early development of my ear helped me two years later as I began to acquire the song of other languages and became pretty proficient in French and Spanish and eventually Italian.

From all these experiences date my respect for apprenticeship and the benefits of practice.

In the middle of all this, somehow at 16 I became chairman of the city’s Junior Council for Social Service, which had nothing to do with what came before nor what would come immediately after but

where I learned I had a capacity for negotiation.

At University, on the sidelines of my somewhat relaxed studies, I was a minor composer and poet (I still have the refusal letter from Alan Brownjohn.) I failed to get a first as this was 1970 and we were punished for the excesses of the year before when the universities were running scared in front of the soixante-huitards. Whatever, I was enrolled for a PhD and invited back to my French university to teach phonetics and Shakespeare, where I also developed two language laboratory course for senior post-graduates working at CAPES and Agrégation levels (which were still in use a decade later I was horrified to learn).

Out of this my lifelong respect for the word and for language was confirmed.

People like me escape their circumstances through education, it is a world truth. I was encouraged to climb on the achievement ladder and only got off when I found myself doing that somehow inevitable PhD and automatically destined for a career as an academic.

From this I learnt that nothing need remain inevitable if you can imagine yourself somewhere else.

I possessed the skill of presentation which came from my music but also fuelled my abilities as teacher, amateur theatre director and actor. So suddenly I recycled myself as an actor-teacher and co-founded a theatre collective.

From that leap forward I learnt that change can be provoked and yet controlled.

After five years of that I clearly was not going to earn much money from acting, as had been the case with my music, so I switched to actor training at one of London’s drama schools, collaborating in the creation of a new course of training for people normally denied access on class, race and orthodoxy grounds.

There I learned both to be generous with knowledge, and that the student’s question teaches the teacher.

I am proud of the people we introduced to the theatre and related professions at this time but there are a finite number of jobs in these fields and eventually I felt we should no longer keep pumping out new talent into such a restricted market. Here were a hundred brave new souls, surely that was enough.

From this I learnt to have the courage to move on.

At that point the Socialists got into power in France and I returned to my adopted region of South-West France to set up a workers cultural expression project under a French Ministry of Culture programme so that their stories might be told. Among other things, we created a TV soap, published an audio book from a young draft dodger, made musical instruments and revived the lost history of a closed glassworks.

This sealed a lifelong professional commitment to freeing the absent voice.

But the Right got back in eventually, as they do, and the Ministry of Culture department funding me was shut down. As it was I had been flattered into taking up a challenging succession post at a London arts centre and I returned to the UK. This was right in the middle of the abolition of the GLC and the ILEA by Margaret Thatcher but I failed to convince the Board to back some difficult choices.

I was a naive and inexperienced manager and that failure taught me a lot.

I met a Yuppie on a train around this time (the then acronym for a Young and UPwardly mobile PErson) and hated him for his swagger. But it struck me on reflection that he was talking as enthusiastically about his work as I had done at his age. The energy had obviously gone elsewhere, even if I disapproved, and I was in danger of becoming an old fuddy-duddy. Up until then people like me had proudly shunned the dirt in money, but had ended up with no idea how the economy worked in spite of our tendentious reading. Nor did I know where Moorgate actually was. So I left and went into the City.

This was my finest role.

I bought a suit and went in as a disillusioned teacher – it was very popular at the time to bash teachers and they were delighted I had switched sides to join the money-grabbing bastards. It was the time of champagne bars and crazy drinking sessions in the Corney and Barrows. I got a temp job as a data entry clerk on a Treasury project drummed up by Thatcher to launch the UK debit card system. I was assessed within 3 months – for the first time in my life – and offered the sack or promotion, eventually reaching senior manager for planning before Barclays undermined the project and it had to close. I learnt masses there about computing, business, the economy and management, and that capitalists dispassionately sell an asset when it is working at its best, whereas I thought it was the other way round.

It was like doing an MBA but without the paper qualification to show for it.

Like most actors’ experience, there were rest periods in between all these jobs when I used to supply teach in difficult London schools but this was to be the final gap for doing that. Over the years I had taught in a sink Primary school with 14 languages spoken in the one class, had the dubious distinction of teaching English to the future killers of Stephen Lawrence, taught computing to reluctant Kayleys on a Brutalist estate, to finally end up being touted as Head of French for a massive inner city comprehensive.

But this period of flitting from job to job was about to finish for I had successfully applied to set up the cultural services for Québec in London, a job which I did with great success for some 15 years before the old militants finally got organised and had me removed for being too effective and showing up the mediocrity of the average government administrator. I left at my own convenience but this was a salutary reminder that

no one is safe from the noxious effects of entropy.

Back self-employed for the third time I was happy for the time to take stock. As diplomat, teacher and performer I clearly had a set of portable skills that could be applied elsewhere and I had 4,500 contacts in my address book from all these different lives. Looking back over my crazy trajectory I realised that most of what I had been involved in was indeed about finding space for the absent voice to be heard; this was the great unifying value of all my work and it gave me a clear future objective. I had tried consultancy but I am no good at writing reports and I do not agree with the situation where an outsider goes in and thinks they can tell a group of people in trouble instantly how to behave.

Over the ensuing months emerged a quirky new definition of myself as

cultural broker, gifted facilitator and thought leader

and those became my inputs.

People got to hear I was available and I was approached by many to feed something back in as a volunteer. I had to accept that I had indeed been in a position of some leadership and that now

I was being seen as one of the Elders.

By careful selection so as not to duplicate any sector, I collated together a portfolio of board membership and advisory positions for a range of cultural organisations. All unpaid.

So eventually the pro bono has come to dominate and my earnings potential wither, which is fine as I am very low maintenance as it happens. The fact that

my network is ageing

also has something to do with this plus the fact that I feel the need to get stuff written down before it goes past its sell-by date.

So I have moved out of London and am now writing up all these bits of knowledge and experience into a series of booklets, plus a more philosophical treatise on what the past 30 years have taught me, as well as a misery memoir which I hope will give courage to people in a similar situation to the one I found myself in when this all started. Which means

I am set next to become a publisher.

And now has begun what my sister-in-law calls my nice life, untrammelled by deadline and deliverable, where I can travel far and wide to see people not places, and host an endless round of house parties in my quirky Sussex home.

A good friend in the publishing industry reminds me that the Chinese see four stages in life:

apprenticeship, consolidation, reinvestment, disengagement. 

I reckon I am at stage 3, if not knocking on the door of number four; that time to disengage, a welcome stop from being so bloody purposeful all the time and where I can then allow myself to slowly fade out.

But, hey, not quite yet!