5×15 Stories

October 16th, The Tabernacle

It’s a pretty simple proposition. Five speakers, each talking for fifteen minutes, about whatever they want. It’s the calibre of speakers, reverence shown to them, and luxury of the venues that elevates 5×15 Stories from a simple chat to a truly engaging and informative session. All the events, taking place roughly once a month, sell out almost instantly, and the team has gone global, heading stateside for 5X15NYC.

Tonight, at Notting Hill’s Tabernacle, there is a certain type of person present. They hold their wine glasses by the stem, titter knowingly at references to certain middle class problems, and afterwards walk back to their plush Notting Hill pads. (Midway through proceedings I feel quite self conscious and actually adjust my hold of my wine glass. Commoner maybe, but it’s not like I’m drinking a Bacardi Breezer.) One thing that everyone here, and this time I can include myself, has in common is an acute and intense sense of curiousity, fascination and interest in the world around them, and people’s experiences of it. So on this windy Monday evening in The Tabernacle, a quirkily grandiose venue that used to, as the name suggests, be a palce of worship, Andrew Marr kicked off proceedings. No inverse pyramid billing here, saving celebs with the biggest profile until last – all are deemed equal and interesting, a fact that in itself makes every subject, however apparently random it may be, highly relevant. All are people, and all have something to say (and a book to plug).

Kicking off with the assertion that a sense of history is essential to being a civilised person, Mr Marr raided his formidable knowledge bank for examples of times when awareness of ignorance of a historical precedent caused individuals and societies to prosper or fail – including the ubiquitous example in all conversation touching on economics, politics and society, the recent financial crisis, where a little understanding of Keynes’ actions in 1929 may have pointed those with power in some more sensible directions. No stranger to the stage, Andrew Marr is a direct, engaging and interesting speaker, and as is the mark of a good communicator, inspires the listener.

A good speech is one you remember, and one of the conversations that kept us engrossed few days following the event, is the conundrum presented to us as to how, and why, we have advanced so much scientifically and technologically, but not politically. Imagine you meet a peasant from the very early years of society, one of Jesus’ contemporaries for example. Now try explaining to him or her the functions and capabilities of an iPhone. Not a hope in hell – electricity, molecular technology, communication structures, plastics…too much development has happened, and the phone would simply be considered magic, or witchcraft. Now talk to the same peasant about corrupt politicians and the difficulties in managing society, and you’re on to a winner. It’s an interesting perspective on the condition of human progress, and one that resonates throughout my week as I read about Gross National Happiness, or marvel at Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking endeavours,

A journalist and author, Marr knows the importance of a good soundbite, and he leaves us with this one, perfect in its combination of juxtapositions and practicality: ‘A sense of history allows you to know that there is a different way forward.’ Challenge the status quo he tells us. Everything that is accepted was once heresy or idiocy, and it is only by questioning what he calls ‘group think’ that societies are able to evolve. Group think in this room right now is one of awe and admiration.

Almost immediately we are thrust into a visual and auditory journey with Katie Hickman and her year spent with a Mexican circus. Born into a diplomatic family and with a writing career, she decided that she would like spend a year exploring the world of this exotic unknown, and once her editor agreed, found herself riding an elephant every evening whilst travelling the Americas, as La Gringa Estrella in Circo de Bell’s (named after the whisky.) It was the desire to write in a fictional style about reality that pushed Katie to the circus, and she eloquently and interestingly communicated her experience of building friendships and family ties in this, tough, hard working, transient and loyal community that was full of ‘real magic.’  Through personal stories elements of the Mexican society were revealed, for example the tradition of having matrimonial godparents, or the position of women, described by the strong matriarch of the circus, who as a fourteen year old girl was married at gunpoint to a man twice her age, whom she hated with a lifelong passion, yet bore thirteen children by. A mixture of envy and wonder fell over the room throughout the fifteen minutes, the audience in rapt attention, aided by black and white photographs illustrating Kate’s memories of spangles and sawdust.

The middle act was, topically, a talk on the power of stories, from Gavin Esler. Drawing from his latest book Lessons from the Top, which is a portrait of leadership in the modern world, his talk was almost a metaphor for itself, focusing on the stories that leaders tell. Far more than words, stories are built from every image, inflection, insight and action. The photos of George W Bush reveal a story as to who he wants the public to think he is; the One Nation rhetoric of David Cameron is part of his story as to what a Tory society can be; the clothing of Nelson Mandela tells a story about where he wants to go. One of the most interesting perceptions of the talk was the discussion around how these stories have changed. Once we wanted leaders to be great, strong and powerful, celebrities distant and aloof, whereas now, with a growth in more confessional media and apparent willing trade of personal privacy for publicity, we are much more open to the personal and social stories of those in the public eye. No one would have asked Winston Churchill how many lovers he had had in his time, but in the 2010 election this was deemed fair game for Nick Clegg, (about thirty, if you’re interested), and as interesting and relevant as he position on social sustainability for example. Such a critique and exploration of the power of stories and rhetoric has the effect of making you question what is in front of you: was Esler’s story a sales pitch? Yes, one that worked.

What did the audience learn from Stanley Johnson? Firstly, that mop of unruly white hair runs in the family. Secondly, the power of money to buy, if not happiness, a life that certainly facilitates maximum possible chances of it due to the experiences one can have. A long term advocate of environmental issues ( hispolitical positions have included Head of the Prevention of Pollution in the European Commission for ten years, Director of Energy Policy, Senior Adviser to DG Government, as well as having been awarded both the Greenpeace and RSPCA awards for outstanding services to the environment and animal welfare respectfully), when his final election campaign did not go as planned, he decided to ‘do what I want to do’ – travel and see the world and the species that inhabit it. Swapping a floundering political career to write ‘travel stories about animals’, his latest book Where The Wild Things Were is a collection of photographs and tales about the places he visited and the animals and birds living, for now, in those far flung and closer to home locations, Something that travel offers an individual is a broader mindset and a different lens, and Johnson’s experiences have taught him that what may be right for one species is not what works for another. For example we learn of an EU directive forcing member states to increase their use of bio diesel that relies on growing plants for palm oil. To create space for the palm oil, the original forests, home to orangutangs are being burned to the ground, with obviously disastrous results. Insightful, humorous and passionate a speaker as Stanley Johnson is, it was his photo collection that really entranced the audience, and his evident delight in it.

The final speaker, poet Jackie Kay, had an immediate advantage in the warm cadence of her Scottish accent. Starting with the elusive sentence that ‘there is no such thing as silence’ she launched into a heartfelt and engaging personal history of her birth, adoption, and the trials of seeking and meeting her birth parents. A sense of place and identity is clearly very important to Jackie, and has inspired her career’s work. Her first collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers (1991), won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award, her latest book Red Dust Road is named after the time she first felt a connection to the soil of Nigeria, despite her Evangelical father rejecting her. Vignettes and recollections pepper her talk, robust and stimulating at times, delicate and fragile at others, and what could be dimissed as a slide show of someone’s photo album is an entertaining  reflection on family and self, and the character forming experience of a life.

You could argue that anything can be interesting for fifteen minutes, although you would be wrong (dishwasher tablets, Milton Keynes, the letter m, for example). 5×15 works because of the variety of topics and speakers that it offers up. Very few people would go to an evening solely about Mexican Circuses, or Jackie Kay’s childhood, but when offered up in this smorgasboard of fasicnating and deliberately diverse topics, the individual and cumulative reaction to the event is one of success. Everyone present has listened attentively, learned new facts, nodded in agreement, found reassurance in a shared opinion, had their assumptions challenged, warmed someone they don’t know, and been left with plenty to cogitate and converse about. Not bad for a Monday night.

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