Dame Shirley Williams on Benjamin Britten

News announced today that Dame Shirley Williams has died at the age of 90, triggers a memory from the Britten Centenary year in which the former politician featured in the Southbank’s brilliant Rest is Noise 20th century music festival.

Williams connection with Benjamin Britten – Williams mother Vera Brittain was a fundraising friend of the composer – took me by surprise when I listened to the talk. It is a glorious treat to watch. Vera Brittain’s story was told in the film Testament of Youth (2014).

Williams is a compelling writer and captivating speaker, especially if like me you’re a fan of the old-school radio talk.

Thoroughly Good post-pandemic

Like many of the musicians who have featured in the podcast over the past 12 months, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting, reassessment and strategising too.

It seems odd to recall how the first few weeks of the pandemic here in the UK were characterised by a sense of fear. That experience a year later feels like a distant memory. First year stuff.

Twelve months later the transition out of lockdown feels a whole lot more daunting. We’re all looking forward to life when it opens up, of course. But where will the work be?

As it happens thoughts, plans, and plotting throughout 2020 have helped me consolidate what Thoroughly Good is about.

Specifically, I’m talking about this blog, and the podcast, but more importantly how I see Thoroughly Good supporting the arts sector in the months and years to come.

This is the bold stuff. (I’ll flag right now that it doesn’t, as yet, involve launching the UK’s fourth classical music radio station.

Over the past eighteen months I’ve worked on a project which has challenged and sustained me in equal measure. It’s drawn on my musical knowledge, my digital content creation experience, and my coaching and mentoring work too. It’s fuelled my preference for looking at the bigger picture, spanning hands on experience gained in broadcasting, classical music and organisational dynamics, and my tendency to indulge in a spot of fantastical thinking.

Thoroughly Good has long been a marketing project. What I’ve ended up thinking over the past few months is that if the classical music is going to emerge looking a little a different from before, I’d like there to be a little Thoroughly Good ‘magic’ discernible in amongst that.

What that means in terms of tangible billable realness is, in all truth, down to you (if you’re someone with a need, or a budget, or an untapped audience). I know what I’d like to see, but only you know what the biggest challenge is you need help with now.

It might involve needing someone with passion, digital experience, and an unwavering belief in the classical music product (however it’s delivered to the consumer). You might need someone to consolidate desire to look at how to consolidate some of your digital gains from the past year. How do you make sure digital isn’t just something you relied on during the pandemic and is, going forward, something that is part of the every day?

Coming up with ideas to meet the needs of a wealth of groups and individuals in this moment is what I’m interested in talking further about.

Implementing those ideas is important, so too developing existing talented individuals and their mindsets. That’s what marks out Thoroughly Good our from the others in the post-pandemic Arts Consultancy ‘pen’. What you’ll get is honesty, dedication, passion, and authenticity. Useful?

I’m interested in bringing the guiding Thoroughly Good principles of discovery, awareness, and curiosity to the digital content strategies of the UK’s arts organisations that have inspired and sustained me over the past twenty years.

I don’t know exactly who needs what; only you do.

Email jon.jacob@thoroughlygood.me if you’d like to natter. Especially interested in meeting in pub gardens from Monday 12 April.

Orchestra of the Swan’s new album Labyrinth in recording at Saffron Hall this week

Travelling to Saffron Walden’s concert venue Saffron Hall to hear the Orchestra of the Swan’s recording for their next album Labyrinth, I felt invincible. 

JTwenty four hours before I conducted a self-administered COVID test and discovered I was negative. I packed my bag (including flask and sandwiches), and arrived at London Liverpool Street with a good 20 minutes to spare before my train to Audley End. There is a dividend amongst all of this hideousness it seems. I can arrive at places ahead of time and fit and healthy. All it took was a global pandemic and a ravaged economy.

The COVDI testing bit of that rambling introduction is important. Contrary to what I perceived the thought of a COVID test to be – a massive deeply unpleasant ball ache – turned out to be inconsequential. Knowing was better than not knowing. Knowing that others had carried out the test too meant interactions were less awkward. Knowing too at London Bridge Station that Southwark Council were already offering free rapid test results for anyone without symptoms confirmed in my mind en-route that the way out of this and towards a greater sense of freedom was a willingness on the part of all of us to voluntarily submit for testing. If that gives me access quicker to thing I love then I’m bought in.

“Where would you like to sit?” asked the masked orchestral manager after I’d stored my Brompton at the back of the hall and stood gawping at the size of the orchestra. “Up there,” I replied pointing at the balcony.

From my vantage point directly behind the Go Pro I looked down on a small string section, plus flutes, clarinet and harp. In an instant order had been restored. The familiar buzz of a pre-rehearsal band dampened my obsessive worries from the day before. The future may not be discernible yet, but it may not be so grim as I’d been thinking it would be. Why? Because me and the other journalist and the Managing Director were looking down on the thing the three of us cared deeply about.

Excitement levels rose accordingly. You can keep your box sets. I’d far rather spend an afternoon listening to a rehearsal and a recording session. 

On the programme for the afternoon, ‘Starburst’ by Jessie Montgomery and, if my attention was maintained, music by Respighi.

It’s a common misconception that an orchestra plays perfectly every time.

Hearing a group of players sight-reading reveals the precariousness of orchestral playing. Music can be (particularly in the case of Montgomery’s effervescent Starbust) messy, especially at the beginning of a rehearsal.

But, in the process of rehearsing, so the miracle of live music making is revealed. Each successive attack of this section or that shows an ever tighter ensemble: a real life demonstration of why live music is such a remarkable thing. 

No mean feat in a piece of music where the detail is terrifying.

Montgomery’s scoring holds no prisoners. There’s a driving infectious pulse reminiscent of Dani Howard’s brilliant opening for The Opera Story’s Robin Hood production in Peckham a few years back .Starburst is stuffed full of syncopations. The time signature shifts. And it concludes uneasily. No one player can rely on one another either: violas and clarinet lines (not orchestrated in Montgomery’s original score) are industrious ; upper strings take flight and soar from time to time (when they’re not required to be ‘argumentative’); piano and harp accentuate. It’s intense concise writing that triggers the heart rate, creating a technicolour spectacle.

In this way the musicians have to be on their mettle. The conductor too has to be patient. And everyone needs to anticipate the acoustic and compensate for the distance they’re still having to sit apart from one another.

Montgomery’s music shines come the end of the rehearsal and takes. Starbust is an exciting opening track for an eclectic range of musical styles on Orchestra of the Swan’s new album out in November 2021 which also includes music by Britten, Purcell, Nico Muhly, Thomas Newman, Peter Maxwell Davies and Joy Division.. This, like Timelapse released earlier this year which has now secured two million streams, solidifies Orchestra of the Swan’s reputation for creating rich musical experiences for a wide range of audiences with ‘mixtapes’, genre-melding playlists that reach further than the conventional concert-going crowd.

Talking to MD Debbie Jagla during the break, it’s easy to see why Orchestra of the Swan is able to capitalise on this moment.

They’re a small team. Artistic vision from leader David Le Page, powered by a can-do managing director, aided and abetted by a former player orchestral manager, documented by a nimble digital capture team who understand the impact of visual storytelling and can armed with high-end mobile kit. This isn’t a story of COVID forcing a pivot in Swan’s activities. Rather, it’s two years pre-COVID experimentation with concert formats readying the brand for the moment when recordings in controlled environments became the order of the day. 

“Digital isn’t compensating for live, it’s helping raise awareness,” explains Debbie to me during the break. Quietly, inside I’m cheering. I had thought I was the only one who thought this about the COVID era. But it’s a risk – costs are covered by the band (supported by Culture Recovery Funding) with no real sense whether they’ll be recouped by sales. Streaming figures from their Timelapse album now totalling 2million are likely to bring in around about $1000. That makes this a marketing project. But given that they’re reaching more people than they did with ‘live only’, increased reach is worth the spend. 

Later after the tea break, the back row of the band shifts around a bit to accommodate an oboist. We hear The Dove from Respighi’s The Birds. A warm rounded oboe solo emanates from the back of the hall and takes those of us on the balcony momentarily by surprise. 

Such experiences can only happen in a physical space – a musician taking hold of the music in front of them and bringing their own voice into the space and gently commanding your attention. 

The Respighi doesn’t demand the time and attention Jessie Montgomery’s more complex piece does. But my focus remains fixed.

Something in the back of my mind links up with a thought: that person far away in the distance looks oddly familiar.

I grab my camera, attach my zoom lens and focus. Yes. It’s Victoria Brawn. An oboist I used to boom for a training orchestra in Aldeburgh in 1996. Memories flood back with the creeping realisation that I’ve nor been in her company for 25 years. And here she is now. Doing what she did then.

After the Respighi takes, me and Victoria talk briefly outside.

She comments how Aldeburgh still seems like yesterday. I bang on about hearing news about her teenage children makes me feel old. She also remarks on how these opportunities (her last concert was in November 2020) are “very precious”. It turns out that the after effects of an infection meant there was a chance she would have to find someone to cover her first paid gig in months. I’m relieved she didn’t have to.

Classical – whatever the format or content – is more than entertainment. There is art to be found in curated eclecticism. And community too.

It has been hugely uplifting to be in the company of music makers today – spirited people doing different things but drawing on the same passion I’ve benefited from over the past twenty five years. Proof of a vaccine or a negative COVID test seems like a small price to pay (assuming the latter is free at the point of delivery). Orchestra of the Swan’s Labyrinth is scheduled for release in November 2021. Too long to wait.

Orchestra of the Swan’s Timelapse 2.0 Digital Concert is available from 8pm on Monday 19 April 2021 and includes music by Bach, Grieg, Nyman, and Rameau.

Introducing the UK’s fourth classical music radio station

It’s taken a year of development during unprecedented times, but I’m really pleased to finally be able to share one Very Exciting Piece of News.

Coming soon, building on the ongoing success of the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast (now on its 114th episode), I’m really proud to announce the launch of the UK’s fourth classical music radio station, Thoroughly Good Radio,

When does Thoroughly Good Radio launch?

Launching Friday 21 May 2021 at 7am, Thoroughly Good Radio will bring together the brightest, best, and most authoritative classical music artists, commentators, and fans from across the media landscape, to celebrate a musical artform which has for far too long been the poor-relation to opera, rock, jazz, and pop.

Over the past twelve months I’ve been working with a range of classical music artists, PRs, and marketers, to determine how best we can all collectively talk about a musical genre in a way that triggers the curiosity of first-timers, cynics, and the ignorant.

COVID-imposed isolation, underpinned by the wholesale denigration of the arts sector as witnessed over the past twelve months, is what drives this exciting new project,

The brightest, best, most authoritative and unapologetic talent

Thoroughly Good Radio will hit the airwaves, set on doing justice to centuries of composers, musicians and writers who have devotedly championed the art form to date.

More announcements will be made in the coming weeks, including lead presenters, features, and media partnerships.

BBC Radio 3’s Ian Skelley was recently moved from the network’s mid-morning show Essential Classics to Afternoon on 3 in a move that caused some ardent fans to come out in hives and email the BBC to complain.

Listeners can expect to hear an unapologetic celebration of classical music spanning baroque, classical, romantic, extreme romaticism, the music of Benjamin Britten, high-end musical theatre, avant-garde, and even film music.

A brand new Thoroughly Good festival dedicated to the joys of classical music

And to launch Thoroughly Good Radio, I’m working in partnership with Lewisham Council to stage the first ever open classical music festival staged in a urban street.

Following a series of often tense meetings with local councillors, plans have now finally be agreed to stage the inaugural Thoroughly Good Radio Festival.

The event will see the road where I live cleared of cars, and in their place a series of thematic stages constructed, dedicated to and decorated in the style of key classical music genres: the Baroque Stage will be at the bottom of the road, Romantic in the middle, and 20th Century close to the top.

Current plans see the Avant-Garde stage erected on the adjacent Torridon Road, with the ‘fringe’ Contemplative Piano Tent sited on the nearby South Circular..

The Thoroughly Good Radio Festival Contemplative Piano Tent is planned to be sited on London’s South Circular. Ludovico Einaudi is currently in negotiations to headline.

An innovative 360 raked seating solution will surround each stage, ensuring socially-distanced and masked audiences remains COVID-safe. Live performances will start at 7am and finish at 10pm.

The Thoroughly Good Radio Festival will run from Friday 21 May until Friday 28 May, concluding with a large-scale fireworks display celebrating the approaching end of social distancing, live-streamed on YouTube.

Local residents will have full free access to every single live performance throughout the festival .

More news to come. I am ridiculously excited by all of this.

Follow Thoroughly Good on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for the latest updates.

David Le Page and the Orchestra of the Swan release The Interpretation of Dreams

The last time I left London was to see David Le Page and his merry band Orchestra of the Swan record Tartini’s Devil’s Trill.

It was my first trip out for nearly three months. It felt like an expedition heading out on the Greater Anglia to Harlow. Another country. I took my Brompton, perhaps a little naively believing I could easily pedal my way from Harlow Town train station to the community centre where Le Page and the production team filming the eclectic selection of music were holed up for the day.

Harlow seemed – like any other UK destination I imagine – deserted. A town constructed, seemingly waiting for its population. Eery.

Once I’d arrived at my destination, I folded up my bike and hobbled uncomfortably inside. The first time on my bike in months had resulted in an unexpected back injury when I’d reached down to the front wheel to reposition the mudguard. That was at Lewisham. The rest of the afternoon had then looked set to be a rather awkward experience. And, on arrival in Harlow, it appeared it was going to be exactly that.

Inside, the community centre had been taken over by TV-people. People hung around in corridors, masked, earnestly those not already inside the makeshift studio to keep quiet and, importantly, keep your distance.

When a suitable break in proceedings presented itself, me and the lovely Nicky were invited inside. A narrow corridor presented itself inside the doors. Urgent looks exchanged; tiptoe stance adopted. Down the narrow makeshift curtain-lined corridor both us of went before we arrived at what in TV terms would be described as ‘the gallery’ – a small group of socially-distanced dimly-let production staff sat at makeshift tables one keeping a close eye on sound levels, another methodically transferring data from SD card to hard drive.

Nicky and I took up position at the far end, me taking up the prime spot where a gap in the curtain revealed violinist David Le Page. I sat down cautiously, smiling pathetically through my mask in response to the mask. I had come to Harlow to watch through a crack in a curtain one musician perform. This is the cost of COVID. This is the closest I can get to live music.

I pointed out to my chaperone that none of this was a problem. This is the story, after all. This is what rams the point home.

Le Page’s vision, realised in collaboration with the musicians he knows and manifest in The Interpretation of Dreams, is the pinnacle of what can be achieved artistically and technically in the digital medium. Carefully curated storytelling articulated through the curation of an eclectic mix of musical styles and linking prose voiced by an actor. It’s basically Radio 3’s Words and Music but better, and in vision and (assuming you’ve got a Connnected TV) on your TV too. An hour-long TV programme featuring skilled musicians playing a mix of classical and jazz.

It’s taken a pandemic to empower a subsection of the classical music world to create the content they’ve long wanted to see on their screens. And now it is. £10 a ticket. The Interpretation of Dreams is available now.

From Monday 29 March 2021, 20:00
The Interpretation of Dreams – Night Owl Digital Concert
 
Arvo Pärt Fratres
Tartini ‘Devil’s Trill’ Violin Sonata in G minor, 1st movement
Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps, 1st movement
The Chordettes Mr Sandman
Vittorio Monti Csárdás
Ignacio Cervantes Ilusiones Perdidas
Liszt Nuages gris
Angelo Badalamenti Audrey’s Dance
 
With words by Sigmund Freud, Lewis Carroll, Ursula K. Le Guin, Franz Kafka, Daniel Love, Stanisław Lem, Lola Ridge & William Burroughs
 
Lana Williams dancer
David Acton narrator

#ABO21 BBC Radio 3’s Alan Davey responds to dismay about BBC Proms recruitment advert

The BBC Proms recruitment advert has come in for a bit of stick over the past few days. And during the Association of British Orchestras conference this week there was a question which was bound to be asked by delegates: was the BBC Proms really apologising for classical music? Was it embarrassed about classical music?

For context, the video – a message seeking to recruit young seasonal comms professionals to support to production of this year’s Proms season – spotlit two existing comms staff talking about the range of events in the season. The video led with a reference to classical music in the context of “its not all Mozart and Beethoven” before pulling in clips from crossover, pop, and world music themed evenings. The video also sought to demonstrate the BBC’s values regarding diversity and inclusion.

Some have interpreted the comparative lack of classical music illustrations and the opening line of the video as the BBC Proms apologising for classical music.

BBC Radio 3 Controller Alan Davey was asked about the advert at the ABO conference.

“This advert was about appealing to a a wider range of people who might normally think about applying for jobs at the Proms. There are seasonal jobs there. Every year, we want to put a plea to as wide an audience as possible.

“The advert is not saying classical music is dull, embarrassing or only for old people. What is says is that the BBC Proms is more than more than you think. When we do things like the Ibiza evening, you get an audience who’ve never heard an orchestra before. Then they want to hear an orchestra again.”

And you know, that that’s what we do. never apologize for classical music. Classical music is bloody marvellous.”

As someone who is familiar with the way in which different types of content are produced and by whom at the BBC, I am happy to throw my weight behind this.

First, the advert has understandably triggered emotions. Those who love the genre (I count myself as one of those) often rail against the seemingly willful mis-representation of the music. Celebrating and advocating the genre has to be done in an inclusive, authentic and respectful way that connects with core listeners and newcomers. That is no easy feat. More people get it wrong than get it right.

I worked in corporate communications producing digital content for a range of different BBC ‘brands’.

Corporate messaging needed to fit broad goals by articulating organisational values. Corporate messaging was produced by a different production team who would be working to a different editorial brief, targetting a different audience with different goals. Recruitment videos (the kind of content which would have been hosted on the BBC’s Careers website ten years ago) would be produced by the corporate comms team who saw the goal as encouraging recruitment and driving applicants. Recruitment content is different from consumer content. I’m a consumer of the BBC Proms, I’m not someone who wants to work for it (I did once, but that’s another story.)

There are plenty of media and arts organisations who actively seek out applicants who assume they either know nothing about classical music, or who actively don’t. The thinking being that these individuals bring a fresh perspective to storytelling, and help challenge conventional thinking which might be embedded. The recruitment of such individuals is not an articulation of how the individual brand sees itself in relation to its current audience, more a manifestation of the wider organisation’s core values. Corporate communications storytellers would understand that as the driving force of the content.

The problem has occurred because a piece of recruitment has been placed on a channel that is perceived as consumer facing, when the content really should have been placed where the sought-after applicants currently occupying their time in the social sphere.

Neither the advert nor the error is a sign that classical music is being apologised for. Its a demonstration that people are looking beyond the bubble to gain much-needed perspectives so that they can reach out to untapped audiences.

#ABO21 Arts Council England Nicholas Serota speaks on diversity research

Arts Council England Chair Nicholas Serota joined the ABO21 conference to talk about ACE’s vision for rebuilding the arts and delivering on the Let’s Create strategy.

“For the Arts Council, our response will be shaped by our 10 year plan: Let’s Create. We’ve spent the last few months refining how we should respond to what one could describe as the biggest stress test or strategy that you could possibly imagine. We should be publishing our detailed plan for the next three years in two parts at the end of this month, and in late June.”

“The only stable foundation for a sustained recovery for classical music lies in an art form that reaches more people nurtures talent wherever it is found, and finds inspiration for every from every quarter. Classical music will never appeal to everyone. But everyone should have a chance to discover it and make a life in it if they have the talent.”

Serota used the opportunity at ABO to reveal early results from a piece of research into diversity commissioned by Arts Council England.

“The arts as often struggle to be a welcoming and inclusive to every social demographic, every community and every ethnicity. That has been a challenge for us for decades. Indeed, it was part of the reason for the establishment of the Arts Council in 1946.

“And the challenge remains because the research clearly illustrates that black or black British musicians are underrepresented at every stage of the training pipeline, as well as in the classical music workforce.

“Deaf, disabled and neuro diverse musicians are also underrepresented, underrepresented, with evidence that while some musicians are willing to disclose their disability, some organizations are unwilling even to inquire about the presence of disability in their midst.

“Around half of all black, Asian and other ethnically diverse, deaf and disabled, and LGBTQ plus musicians in the sector, feel that they have that they face or indeed have faced barriers restricting the opportunities available to them.”

“For The Arts Council, and for me, understanding diversity in its widest context, is both a matter of fairness and integrity to the future of culture in this country. And in that future, we want to make sure that the return on public investment in the art is ambitious, high quality audience performance is available to the widest audience through a sector that finds talent wherever it blossoms.”

One delegate sought clarification about the challenge facing diversity drawing on yesterday’s symposium on diversity where contributors stated that there wasn’t a pipeline issue, but one of bias in hiring, where ACE considered there wasn’t.

“I think the answer is it’s both,” explained Serota, “I mean, there are issues about hiring. But I think that we really do need to concentrate and we must draw, you know, we must really pay attention to those. But I do you think that the building the pipeline, through teenage and effectively Conservatoire years student years is absolutely crucial. And we need to find a way of doing that. Hiring is clearly an issue. And there was a lot of debate yesterday about hiring and does someone fit in? Do they not? Are they on trial? For how long? Those kinds of questions are clearly very important, and the determination of the management of the orchestra plays a crucial role in that. But I do think we need to address the pipeline question and nurturing young talent and nurturing talent that doesn’t necessarily attend independent schools have the support of parents who have higher education and so on.

On digital streams, the question was asked whether there is a risk of the market for digital orchestral content becoming saturated

“I think at present, people are, as I said, have such a hunger for live performance,” responded Serota. “To be in a concert hall, the moment we’ve probably reached a point where we may well be somewhat saturated. I continue to believe that actually, content presented online available at all times, or indeed streamed will be an in a lot will form a larger part of our
general engagement with classical music and music of all kinds in the future. So I’m sure that there will be a market for digital online content that I think we’ve we’re all desperate to get back into into into a whole world, aren’t we?”

#ABO21 Caroline Dinenage MP shares some surprising Culture Recovery Fund figures

The Association of British Orchestras conference 2021 is underway and has started with its customary address from the ABO Chairman, principal supporters (Classic FM), and a 20 minute or so spot from Caroline Dinenage MP, Minister of State for Digital and Culture in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

In a fairly safe piece to camera delivered live (and a little later than originally scheduled), Dinenage thanked the ABO and membership for their collaboration in helping DCMS respond to the challenges faced by the arts and culture sector amidst the pandemic.

Talking specifically about the Culture Recovery Fund Dinenage said,

“I was very proud to have been part of the team that helped deliver the Cultural Recovery Fund. It’s an unprecedented sum of money, £1.57 billion pounds, the biggest ever one-off cash injection into UK arts and culture. And it is providing support right across the cultural ecosystem. I was delighted that last week, the Treasury announced £300 million of additional funding for that as part of the Spring Budget, and that will continue to support our key cultural organizations. It will continue to bridge the sector as audiences begin to return it will continue to ensure a really vibrant future for the culture sector as the nation recovers from the pandemic.”

“So far, we’ve only released the details of the very first round of the Cultural Recovery Fund, the second one has just concluded.

“And of that, just from that first round alone £117 million has already been awarded to 690 music-based organizations. The music sector will be further supported through the second round of funding, and there’s so many orchestras right across the country that will receive funding in that, in that section.

“The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra received over £8.8 million. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra received over £3 million. The Paraorchestra and friends in Bristol received over a million, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra received over £10 million, all incredibly worthwhile recipients of that money. And I’m also delighted that the self-employment income support scheme has been extended until September 2021.”

The Culture Recovery Fund data issued by Arts Council England confirms that the Paraorchestra received £156,000, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra received £843K. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra received £996,702. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra did not apply for funds from the Cultural Recovery Fund.

The ABO confirmed in a tweet following her appearance of the “need to clarify the numbers quoted by the Minister for CRF grants to ABO members were wrong her briefing, and she is mortified. We have informed DCMS.”

https://twitter.com/aborchestras/status/1369972206294425600

The women who make me the person I am

International Women’s Day is as much for men as it is for women.

This may not be a popular view in some circles. But hear me out. I wonder whether the greater responsibility lies on men to listen, think and bring about change.

This year, following an annual tradition established a few years back, I notice that International Women’s Day is triggering more than just a desire to celebrate, but to think, specifically about personal responsibility.

See from a different perspective

Six years ago I was involved in recruiting PR trainees (paid) at the BBC. The recruitment brief didn’t as you might expect, demand we looked for people at the beginning of their careers, but those who showed curiosity, an aptitude and willingness to learn, and to develop ideas.

One of the trainees selected for the year-long contract was Mina – a Muslim woman who had previously worked in BBC Children’s ten years previously, who had left to have children. After a few years Mina was keen to return to work but try something different. She was the oldest trainee. We warmed to her strength, openness and, now I come to remember her, the stillness in her communication style.

Mina and I sat down for a meeting a few months after she had started back at the BBC. She took me by surprise when she explained that she was struggling. “I walk into a meeting room sometimes here and notice how people don’t notice me, ” she explained. “They look past me.” She went on to say that she believed it was because she was a Muslim woman. “They see my hijab and make up their minds right there and then. They see a box ticked.”

It was saddening to hear, knowing as I did then what had prompted everyone on the panel to offer her the opportunity. Our intent had been sound, but the experience for her wasn’t turning out to be quite as we’d hoped.

“When I look at you,” I replied, “I don’t see a Muslim woman. I see a person who is strong, intelligent, and vital.”

Quite apart from my words being meant with good intent, it was also something I genuinely believed. True to the characteristics which had secured her the role, Mina replied gently and with unequivocal purpose. “I want you to see me as a Muslim woman. I want everyone to see me here as a Muslim woman.”

It was a powerful exchange which triggered my thinking in a positive direction. The first exchange where I first became aware of my own privilege. I thank Mina for that. Many times over. I do still sense of guilt for having made the error in the first place.

The 2016 ‘Woman Map’

Back in 2016 I conducted an experiment. I drew up a list of all the women I knew from (or knew of) the present or the past, and put them on an A4 piece of paper. I drew circles around person according to the influence they had on me in the ‘now’. After that, I listed how each had influenced me.

Timeline

Going further, I plotted the impact of these significant women on a timeline.

Six years later

Just this past week, a conversation I had with a colleague touched on privilege again. It highlighted how in the subject areas of gender equality, opportunity, and (I say this as a catch-all indicative of the point I’m trying to make here) all women, I experience a sense of fear. After an extended monologue about the need to fiercly protect people’s creative spirit at all costs, I ended up saying how I was also aware that the best thing – perhaps the only thing – I could do as a privileged white male is to be aware of that privilege and ensure that the advantage I have in society that I often overlook, doesn’t inadvertently disadvantage others, and in particular women. Thinking that it doesn’t is in itself a manifestation of white male privilege. To say that you’re not aware it is happening is a defence, it’s evidence.

Awareness and difference

It seems to me then on this International Women’s Day that change can begin to happen when an awareness is brought (by men) to a situation. Curiosity combined with the willingness of others to invite looking at the world through a different prism is key. That is what all of my most valued colleagues have done over the years. They are the people I have learned from.

Balance

There is perhaps another perspective worth sharing. The majority of those I interact with, spark off, and develop ideas with are women. I feel most at ease in the company of women. That’s perhaps another reason why it takes an active decision on my part to look from a woman’s perspective. That in itself is a habit to adopt. Habits – building neural pathways – are difficult things to embed. But that’s no reason not to try.

In reflecting on International Women’s Day this year, I’m mindful of those who use gender politics as a cloak for destructive behaviours. I think it is more marked in the isolated remote-working world we are all in at the present time. Routing out faulty thinking unwitting or otherwise, collusion, and negative actions, is vital not only to interact with one another in a way that is respectful, but also respectful to the very need for change we’re all invited to think about on International Women’s Day.

And if we are to think about our personal responsibility in collectively bringing about a change in thinking in action, then that also extends to identifying those rare occasions when a rallying cry is being hijacked by an agenda manifest in negative behaviours. There is a lot of it about. And when I find myself bearing witness the energy required to unpick what the underlying opportunity is is always considerable. We all have a responsibility to bring about positive change as much as we have a responsibility to route out destructive behaviours.

I’m also reminded about those who have supported and developed me over the past twelve months. These are people who have been brave, determined, generous and strong. They are people who have shared their values in their actions. What links them all is a unshakeable authenticity underpinned by integrity. They are people who make the person I am.

So, thank you to the women who are strong, intelligent, articulate, empowering and emboldening. Thank you to those who listen without judgment, who gently challenge my thinking, and who help me. You are the people to create relationships I depend on. And you do that by creating a shared sense of trust.

Scala Radio’s Second Birthday

It seems a little odd to be celebrating Scala Radio’s second birthday this evening online via Teams. I was grumpy partly because of the hopelessness of BT Openreach, partly because the internet has been so flakey today and partly because the precariousness of present working conditions was exposed to me. A coaching session very nearly didn’t happen (Coaches who fail to turn up for sessions are understandably looked down upon.) I am reminded that acknowledging what’s going on outside your bubble is terribly important. I try to. But I attend these kind of things and look on the assembled crowd and think ‘imposter syndrome’. (I reassure myself it would have been far worse if this had happened in person.) I’m indebted to Brett Spencer for introductions and opportunities, the wonderfulness of Charlotte Greenman and Maria Williams, and the hard earned trust of David May, Poppy Davenport, Clare Baker, Jo Wilson, Alice Millar and Seb too. Starting a radio station isn’t easy. Working with me is even more demanding (during a meeting with a senior wonk last week I explained that I was ‘a massive pain in the arse’.) Pity them all. With added love to the brilliant Kellie Redmond and the ridiculously efficient and effective Ally Steel.