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In conversation: John Simmons & Rowena Roberts

Rowena Roberts and cofounder John Simmons talk language and connection, books, storytelling, and what it means to call yourself a writer.

JOHN
It was great to see you again at the Masterclass in Oxford – you’ve now done the full set. Your final evening piece reminded us that your Dark Angels journey began with a book. You came across my book We, Me, Them & It first and that led you to Dark Angels at Highgreen. It’s actually a well-trodden path. What did the book mean to you at the time you first read it?

ROWENA
Quite frankly, utter relief!

Writer Rowena Roberts and her munchkins

My first copywriting job was based on the principle of “write what you’re told”, which gave me little creative freedom and even less personal (or professional, for that matter) satisfaction.

On the side, I wrote magazine articles and reviews on a freelance basis – and was starting to separate the two activities in my mind as “free” writing, where I could indulge my love of language and expression, and “corporate” writing, otherwise known as formal, safe, and lacklustre beyond belief.

The worst part was the knowledge that my copywriting wasn’t doing the job it was supposed to do. Sure, my standard of English and grammar and my volume of output (there’s that corporate speak again) kept my manager happy, but I just knew how bored and uninspired the readers would be – how quickly their attention would wander, and how my world-weary words would make their day just a little more dreary.

How truly refreshing it was, then, to discover your book! To be reminded that communication in all its forms is ultimately about connection – and that a little artistry, imagination and playfulness beats a lot of USPs and jaded clichés (“passionate”, anyone?).

JOHN
‘Only connect’ (EM Forster) has always been my favourite quotation. It works for me in so many ways: the need to network, to work with others, a plea for empathy, to achieve the real purpose of communication. All those ideas were behind We, Me, Them & It and then I discovered that Dark Angels courses were really able to connect at a deeper level through a shared belief in the potential of writing.

By that point I’d also written The Invisible Grail, based on a belief (from my own work) in the power of storytelling in business. So The Invisible Grail was written as a quest, one of the fundamental archetypes of storytelling. What also emerged was that books might have two purposes for writers who came on Dark Angels courses. First to introduce them to the principles, perhaps to whet their appetite, then to remind them and recapture some of the excitement after returning to work: to renew that faith daily that business writing can be invigorating, stimulating, transforming – for the writer and the reader.

Do you dip into the books after courses? Do they revive moments from, for example, Dark Angels in Spain?

ROWENA
I do – and they do.

Dark Angels was an obvious choice after our first course. What I liked most about it was that you were walking your talk – bringing so much of your personality and background into your writing of a book that advised readers to bring more of their personality into their writing at work. The book reminds us that even people who aren’t employed as writers still often write at work – emails, letters, presentations, etc – and a little creativity can go a long way towards making work a little less mundane and a little more enjoyable.

It struck me early on in our Spanish sojourn how difficult it seemed for a group of people who were mostly employed to write to call themselves ‘writers’. Perhaps because there’s no qualification or certificate awarded, we shy away from a label that implies a level of expertise we’re not sure we have the right to claim. Milton, he was a writer. Wilde, Plath, Hemmingway, Brontë (all of them), Tolkein, Capote, Angelou, that Shakespeare wasn’t bad either. Me? I ‘write for a living’.

But the books tell us that we all have an inner voice waiting to be heard, a storyteller eager to be released, a dark angel ready to spread its wings. I continue to find ideas and inspiration in the books, before and after the courses. The courses themselves introduce us to our own hidden depths; I think we all left Aracena as proud, if somewhat surprised, writers. It’s satisfying to discover that I can walk the talk myself.

JOHN
It’s true what you say about writers finding it hard to say ‘I am a writer’. We hope they go away from our courses more confident to say those words. Perhaps it is something to do with a perceived legitimacy that comes from a published book – there’s a link between ‘author’ and ‘authority’.

But of course you don’t have to write a book to see yourself as a writer. By the time people reach Masterclass level – as you now have – our hope is that essentials are in place. By that I don’t really mean ‘technical skills’ but a change in the way you think of yourself. The inner belief to say ‘I am a writer’. To have the confidence and the sheer love of the craft to want to be the best writer you can be, whatever kind of writing you do.

I hope that rings true for you.

ROWENA
I’m proud to say that it does.

And, who knows, perhaps accepting that title in our minds is the step we need to take before we can go on to write our own books. That’s certainly been the case for some fellow Dark Angels, who became published authors after taking their courses.

Will I join their ranks in the future? Let’s watch this space…

Spanish Crossings

Dark Angels founder John Simmons has just published his second novel, Spanish Crossings, set during the Spanish Civil War. This began as a story written in Spain on a Dark Angels course in 2014.

Prologue

September 1984, Spain

Mother declared herself happy. She had not liked Madrid. In her head it still rang with the steel clang of jackboots on the cobblestones. Standing in front of Picasso’s newly installed painting Guernica, paying silent homage, had left her tearful. Now we had moved south to Seville, and her mood lifted.

Sometimes we rattled through the streets on trams but mostly we walked. Even in late September Seville was hot, the heat rising from the pavements as well as burning down from above. So our walking was strolling and our strolling was sitting in the gardens. Watching the world go by was what Mother did now, now that the world was passing her by. It seemed that way to me too, now that I was nearing my fortieth birthday.

I had been a disappointment to Mother and Spain had been the reason for her disappointment. In her youth, her beliefs and her friendships had been defined by the Spanish Civil War. In north London, particularly in Hampstead, the war had raged fiercely through the weapons of words. I wish I had heard her then, in her prime. I was left with the black and white photos of a young woman with dark hair tied back and a raised clenched fist. “No paseran!” she shouted from the centre of her eccentric group of comrades.

But I disappointed her. My political belief was warm leche compared to her hot cortado. What should I do with a degree in languages, with Spanish as my main study? Of course I came to Spain, and of course this was the 1970s with Franco still in power. I broke Mother’s forty year boycott of this country that, unseen, unvisited, she had loved despite the way it had disappointed her. Perhaps I took heart from that. Disappointments can be overcome. They do not need to last a lifetime.

I came to Spain as a lowly link in the journalistic chain. I filed stories with a reporter’s objectivity – how Mother hated that – but with increasing excitement as Franco’s time also began to fade into the history of black and white photography. He died, I rejoiced, I held my breath. I joined the people on the streets as colour returned. I was there, with shots ringing out in parliament, watching the coup failing like a scene from an opera. Then I came home.

By this time, Mother was frail. My father had long disappeared from the scene, unmentioned, unmentionable. I took it into my head to take Mother to Spain for her first experience of this country that had shaped her life.

“That would be interesting,” she said. I wasn’t sure if this was a commitment.

“I’ll pay,” I said. “We’ll stay at nice places and we can go at your pace.”

Her eyes were filming with age but there was a glint of her old spirit.

“I’m not dead yet. And not planning to be. I would like to see Madrid – and Seville. Pepe came from there.”

So he had been mentioned. Perhaps this gave me a reason, apart from filial duty, for such a trip. I could walk in my father’s disappeared footsteps.

After Madrid we took the train to Seville. Despite Mother’s rejection of the advance of age, there was no mistaking her frailty. She was in her seventies now, her skin wrinkled like overwashed fabric, her voice closer to a whisper than a shout, her gait hunched behind an invisible stick. I walked behind, to follow her pace and direction, not my own. And she gained energy day by day as we both orientated ourselves towards Seville.

We stayed in the Hotel Doña Maria near the Cathedral. The bells tolled through the night but Mother never mentioned them. Her room was rather grand, with antique dark-wood furniture and devotional paintings. Not her taste, nor mine, but she could rest in the afternoons. The idea of siesta made more sense here.

On our first morning we visited the cathedral. Mother was still shocked by its Catholicism, by the flaunting of its wealth through gold and silver. The statues of Christ, the paintings of the Virgin, allowed no questioning of faith.

“I hate this place,” Mother whispered to herself, perhaps to me.

She gravitated towards la juderia and Alcazar, instinctively on the side of the suppressed. But Jews and Muslims were not really present there. Their people had been swallowed by the past.

She loved the barrio, wandering the narrow alleyways without fear while I looked shiftily over my shoulder in the gathering darkness. We could smell rather than see the oranges deep in the leaves. Sitting on a bench in Plaza Santa Cruz, among the rose bushes, she listened to the gypsy wails and rhythmic strumming of Flamenco players getting ready to perform. By daylight she inhaled the architecture of the tobacco factory, allowing herself a secret cigarette while humming songs from Carmen.  Water trickled through the days, the trilling of fountains all over the city, the stifling air freshened by the wafting of a fan bought in a shop outside the Cathedral.

So the days drifted by. We had set no time limit on our visit but I sensed it was nearing our time to move on. Perhaps Bilbao could no longer be avoided?

It was in the Jardines de Murillo, outside the Alcazar walls, beneath the ancient, leafy trees, that Mother declared she was happy. It was a relief to me, more than I had expected.

We said good night and wished each other sleep. I listened to the Cathedral bells marking the hours. In the morning, when Mother did not appear for breakfast, I knocked on her door but there was only silence. So I had to ask the hotel manager to open her room door. Her sleep was profound but at least, I consoled myself, she died happy.

Get a copy of Spanish Crossings here ->

Crossings

 

Dark Angels Masterclass, Oxford 2017

by John Simmons

My Dark Angels partner, Jamie Jauncey, was struggling to translate the title of my novel Spanish Crossings into Spanish. ‘Crossings’ has more than one possibility. Perhaps it would be even trickier to translate it into Basque, that mysterious language of the country where much of the novel originates.

I was thinking about origins in more than one way too. My own family origins; the origins of Dark Angels; the university’s origins in the 13thcentury in the buildings where we were staying. This was a rich mix of emotions because I was running – with my Dark Angels co-founders Jamie and Stuart and new associate partner Elen – the fifth Dark Angels Masterclass, possibly for the last time. And it was also publication day for Spanish Crossings.

We had a talented group, ten fine writers with the Dark Angels spirit. By which I mean we set them writing exercises, often with seemingly impossible constraints (not least of time) and of course they all rose to the challenge.

Oxford itself was a large part of the experience. Place is always important to inspire writing on a Dark Angels course and this time that seemed more true than ever. Visits to colleges, to museums (Ashmolean, Weston, Pitt Rivers), briefs inspired by fantasy and reality inspired an amazing diversity of writing. To be moved to laughter, then to fears and tears, by a ghost story was just one of the writing feats. (Hats off to Jeannie.)

 

From a purely personal viewpoint, I had the added poignancy of an ending combined with a beginning. Thursday was the official publication day for Spanish Crossings so in the evening I was asked to give a reading and talk to the group after dinner. I concentrated on what writers might learn from my own experience of writing the novel. The importance of:

  • The opening words, particularly if they can suggest the theme (“Mother declared herself happy”.
  • The focus provided by the concentrated experience of a Dark Angels course (I had written the Prologue during one of our courses in Spain).
  • Structure providing the framework to shape and direct the writing.
  • Research, particularly provided by books and visits to significant locations.
  • The stimulus of family stories, memories and photographs.
  • The story behind the story.

I have told some of that story behind the story in previous blogs: the Spanish Civil War; the bombing of Guernica; the evacuation of 4000 Basque children to Britain; the adoption by my parents of one of those boys. Eighty years ago. Since I had written those blogs, more information had emerged about Jesus Iguaran Aramburu thanks to the help of new Basque contacts via Twitter. My special thanks are given to @gurimousen and @uaiartza who enabled me to track the story of Jesus Iguaran a little further.

Now Dark Angels moves on to the next courses www.dark-angels.org.uk and now the novel Spanish Crossings is published. You can get a copy here goo.gl/9jVJCM I’d love to hear what you think of it. And I’d be interested to hear any translations of the title into Spanish, Basque, French or any other language. For what is a translation but a form of crossing?

In Conversation: Stuart Delves & Samm Short

 

Stuart Delves

Stuart Delves and Samm Short remember how last year’s advanced course was a little bit different – blending writing and yoga in the house overlooking the sierra.

STUART:
Samm, you began your Dark Angels journey on a Starter Day in Strawberry Hill. How did you find that day?

SAMM:
Darkly fun. I hadn’t really appreciated how important a sense of place is to DA, and was thrilled to find myself somewhere as odd as Strawberry Hill House. I also wasn’t prepared for how kooky some of the writing activities were, and was happily taken by surprise by what we were asked to do, and in such wicked time restraints. I wrote, and when I got home I re-wrote, and the simple pleasure of being with language again was beautiful.

Samm Short

I think perhaps because I was teaching – for want of a better word – around that time, I’d forgotten what it was like to just write without a goal. I’d allowed a gap to forge between what I was prompting others to do, and what I was doing myself. So to write for the pure fun of it, with no product or plan in sight was like rediscovering a childhood wonder. Of course the beauty of that kind of writing is that is nearly always triggers something ‘useful’ (I re-read my website with a mixture of horror and fascination that night), – but I was much more thrilled by the fact I’d written a poem, and a spooky one at that.

STUART:
Your writing had impressed the tutors, John and Elen, and Neil also knew your work, plus the fact that you also taught yoga. So we hatched a plan. Or rather they suggested I hatch a plan. They thought you were up to going straight on to the Advanced Course in Spain. And what about adding in a bit of yoga on the fringes of the day? Well that’s what we did. Before asking you how you thought the yoga fitted in, tell me how you found Spain and Finca El Tornero – a very specially selected Dark Angels place.

SAMM:
The Finca was magical. In the evenings we sat around the fire drinking wine and listening to jazz, and it was straight out of a Woody Allen screenplay – ‘A group of ambitious writers met at an old Finca in the hills of Seville…’; it felt like anything could happen.

In the mornings we’d wake up and wander into the kitchen with the smell of fresh coffee – thank you Richard! – and then out into the sunny courtyard with pen, paper and a whole heap of curiosity.

I’d been working as a freelance copywriter and writing tutor for two years at that point, and was used to being stuck at my desk, writing hard to meet deadlines and bring in work. I rarely found time to reflect on what I was writing and whether there were ways of making it more effective, and more enjoyable to do. Being at the finca provided much needed breathing space, and a boost to my motivation.

It was also a particularly poignant introduction to Spain; after the course I drove down to meet my parents at our new home just outside Malaga. It was our last viewing before moving out there a month later, to set up a retreat centre for yoga, art and writing.

STUART
I hope that is going well and I’m sure you weave together the three disciplines seamlessly. How did you find the yoga practice combined with the Dark Angels course? You certainly had a few enthusiasts joining the morning sessions!

SAMM
It was such a beautiful way to start the day. For me yoga is a way of moving away from the self-limiting, overly-rational mind, and submerging into something deeper and more instinctual. I find it helps me to get out of my own way, and be more intuitive and present with whatever life throws at me – and as a freelance copywriter that’s essential!

When I write – whether for a client’s funding bid or a personal poem – my internal censor can kick in almost instantly, strangling the words before they have a chance to be born. Doing a physical and focussing practice beforehand can set the mind-body-heart system up so that censor has less of a grip, and we can perhaps be a little braver in our writing. We’re surrounded by words – and sometimes we need to shake things up a bit to find new ways of communicating with them.

In the morning sessions we started with a quote by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi – his words never cease to amaze me on a poetic but also on a spiritual level. And we tried an afternoon walking meditation too– one fellow writer found the missing last line to his chapter in that session, which was a great example of how these practices can complement each other.

But I’m obviously biased! How was it from your point of view?

STUART
I thought it was a really nice addition and contributed to the reflective atmosphere of Finca El Tornero. Because we choose secluded retreat settings for our courses there is always a hint of the monastic, where physical exercises were traditionally used to aid contemplation, yoga and tai chi in the East and the perambulation of cloisters in the West.

The relationship between movement and writing has often been a fascinating topic of discussion that arises within Dark Angels. A lot of people who come on our courses from the corporate world are runners. And many are dedicated walkers. I particularly enjoyed the walking meditation, barefoot in the sun kissed grass.

A tip I often give, particularly when running in-house workshops in corporate settings is “Get up from your desk. Go for a walk, around the square or park if you can, or to the water cooler at the vey least.” Movement shifts thought. Being glued to the keyboard eight hours a day is antithetical to creativity.

Andalucia was a great place to bring in the yoga practice. One of the things that keeps me enthralled by Dark Angels is the openness to development. The year before last in Aracena we joined the annual pilgrimage out from the town into the countryside following an ox-drawn cart bearing a candle-lit effigy of the Virgin. It was a beautiful, affecting experience. Then last year, along with your yoga, Neil took a group to an outlying village along the old cobbled and shaded donkey tracks that criss-cross the Sierra. You’re right – anything can happen. Like a good Rioja, as Dark Angels matures, the mix gets richer. Thank you Samm for helping to make last year’s course so special.

Dark Angels in Conversation: Amsterdam

Gillian Colhoun and Stuart Delves ran a two-day, bespoke course for Irdeto’s marketing team in Amsterdam this January. Here’s their conversation about that experience, and a follow up email from a participant that all of us live for. 

Stuart to Gillian

Hard at work at the College Hotel

Gillian, it was great co-tutoring with you again. The first time at Highgreen Manor in Northumberland and this last time in perishing January at the College Hotel in Amsterdam. The link between the two courses, the first open and the second closed, bespoke or ‘in-house’ was, of course, Irdeto’s Solution Marketing Manager Jo Wall. Who’d have thought that six months after Highgreen she would be in touch with us asking us to tailor a foundation course for her multi-national team based in Amsterdam. It would be interesting to muse on what were the key differences between the open and the bespoke. Dark Angels have done several bespoke courses before but we’ve never really highlighted the differences. What springs to mind first for you?

Gillian to Stuart

My first thought was the group dynamic. One of the more beautiful aspects of the open courses is that people arrive as strangers and leave as something quite different. In just a few short days, they go from knowing absolutely nothing about the person sitting on their right, to sharing a bond that holds them together long after the smells and sounds of the course have dimmed. Whether it’s through tackling often poignant exercises together, or acknowledging emotions that take one by surprise, the friendships live on. Would this rather thrilling element to Dark Angels be lost in a group who already know one another? Might they be less inclined to jump in to the exercises for fear of a judgmental glance from a co-worker? Of course, I really shouldn’t have worried since all eight members of this talented team arrived with a joyful desire to be a better writer and nurture mutual understanding. Every one eager to explore underlying principles  – not to dictate or invent “rules” on writing – but to introduce ways of thinking that would make them better listeners and communicators. And from their feedback and work, they absolutely succeeded. Having done similar types of bespoke courses before, has this been your experience in the past? Where does the magic come from I wonder?

Collaborating on building a brand

Stuart to Gillian

Yes, an appetite for learning and improvement has always been there in the teams we’ve worked with before and I think that’s pretty crucial to our methodology. The Irdeto team was carefully picked and had good rapport, which enabled them to embrace the newcomers. There’s always, I feel, a greater weight of expectation on a bespoke course that the sessions will ‘deliver’, in other words help to answer key issues like tone of voice or writing within business constraints. I’m glad to say that once again we manifestly helped on this score. But I think the magic comes from the personal dimension. It always amazes me that our short course can go so deep in such a brief space of time. And I think this is because even on a bespoke course, where we apply the learning to real brand and team situations, we still run our personal writing strand in parallel. I know we get responses like ‘life-changing’ on our open courses but to get them on a closed course as well still delights me after twelve years. I know you achieved some pretty deep mining in your 1-2-1 sessions. Without betraying any confidences can you say a bit about this?

Gillian to Stuart

I felt very privileged to hear how individuals felt about their personal writing; how they could channel this rediscovered energy into their world of work. We discussed many different things; the momentum to be found in writing memoir, or the sweet liberation in tackling the most opaque technology regulation in a series of 250 word stories. We appreciated the role of graphic design and how its rules can give shape and meaning to our carefully considered paragraphs. For those writing in English as a second language, we talked about sharpening our ear to more elegant phrasing by reading more, yes, but also by listening more. BBC Radio 4 has some of the best rabbit holes to venture down where that’s concerned. And ultimately we chatted about giving ourselves permission to play with words and see where the joy of that process can take us.

The last morning was significant for me. It was fun to take a lot of what was discussed during the personal writing exercises and start to apply those learnings to the Irdeto branded content. In just two days it felt like the group achieved a significant amount as a group and as individuals. Do you agree?

Stuart to Gillian

I do. The group achieved a lot as a team, in particular furthering their articulation of their tone of voice – not only getting guidance from us but, as importantly, having their discussions moderated.  This is a key aspect of closed courses and in-house day workshops. The opportunity to have searching explorations convened and sometimes steered is as important as experiencing the Dark Angels exercises. The group also seemed to get a huge amount out of the two days personally. Ellen, the boss (who the others described as a fierce but caring mama bear) said the course ‘had opened doors I didn’t even know were there’. In her follow up email she also said-

“The words from the last two days just keep swishing around in my head… Everyone I spoke to has found this to be the best training / workshop / learning of any kind of creative writing they’ve ever come across, too.”

Luckily the air in Amsterdam was icy those two days, as it helped to mask our blushes as we left the hotel for the tram stop.

Gillian to Stuart

It strikes me that this format lends itself rather superbly to the needs of a corporate communications team. That gentle balance of exploring the individual as well as the organisation means we were able to nurture the flowers and get to the worms – lovely.

Stuart Delves, Gillian Colhoun and the Irdeto team in Amsterdam

Quotes

“Thanks again for the great course. It was insightful, intense, exhausting and fun!”

~ Julia Broere, Global Marketing, Irdeto

“Thank you. It was a life-changing experience.”

~ Melinda Mattei, Irdeto

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