‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’: Do Your Troops Know What They’re Here For?

Gassed by John Singer Sargent, Collection of the Imperial War Museum

Gassed by John Singer Sargent, Collection of the Imperial War Museum

Over the last few years there have been many publications, documentaries, exhibitions and events to mark the centenary of the First World War. For me the most touching discovery was a scratchy twenty-second recording of unfamiliar lyrics sung to a familiar tune.

Born to Irish parents in Fulham in 1895, Edward Dwyer joined the East Surrey Regiment at the age of 16. When war broke out he served in the Retreat from Mons, the first battle fought by the British Army against the Germans. After his heroic grenade defence of a trench on Hill 60 just outside Ypres in April 1915, he became (at the time) the youngest person to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The following year, recuperating from injuries back in England, Dwyer made a sound recording on the Regal label. It is thought to be the only such recording of a serving British soldier during World War I. In less than six minutes he talks about life at the front, pay and rations and so forth. He observes that, to keep their spirits up, the troops sang songs with their own rewritten lyrics. To the tune of Auld Lang Syne he croons:

‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.

We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.’

 

Dwyer’s jaunty voice reaches out to us across a hundred years with eerie immediacy. It’s a tragic thought, that the soldiers on the front line had no real sense of why they were on a particular mission or manoeuvre. They got on with the job without knowing what the job was. And laughed about it.

This seems to me quite an indictment of leadership. You can’t expect the rank and file to have detailed knowledge of strategy. But surely they should be able broadly to articulate why they’re there.

In the world of commerce we spend a lot of time articulating corporate vision and values. We invest in colleague engagement exercises, cascade meetings and internal communications. We introduce staff to the latest thought pieces, catchy acronyms and mots du jour. We talk a great deal about the need to define the Purpose of our brands and businesses.

But are these efforts convincing or confusing? Are our Purposes genuinely for the benefit of the workforce? Or are they exercises in corporate vanity? Can we really be confident that, at a fundamental level, our staff know what they’re about? Or are they here because they’re here because they’re here?

Later the same year that Dwyer made that haunting recording, he was back on active service. On 3 September 1916 at Guillemont, in one of the many battles of the Somme, Corporal Edward Dwyer VC was killed in action. He was just a couple of months short of his twenty first birthday.

 

I wrote this piece to mark Armistice Day 2016.

’At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.’

Poppy Appeal

Poppy Appeal

No. 106

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 6

Rehearsing and Editing Creativity

Next week the English National Ballet brings its award-winning programme of new ballets, Lest We Forget, to Sadler’s Wells. Three contemporary choreographers have created works reflecting in different ways on the First World War. I saw Lest We Forget last year at The Barbican and it’s a very moving experience. There are still some tickets available.

I attended a talk by Russell Maliphant who has created one of the pieces, Second Breath. Maliphant was classically trained, but has since used the learned vocabulary of classical ballet to create his own distinct choreographic language. He explores the interaction of movement and light with the eye of a film-maker. His dancers spin, twist and turn around each other. They redistribute each other’s weight, as if working with levers, pulleys and pistons. It’s a wonder to behold.

Maliphant explained that a lot of his creativity occurs when he’s working with his dancers in the studio, where he has the opportunity to respond to their different personalities and styles of movement. He also films his rehearsals and subsequently explores the possibilities available to him in the edit: rearranging the sequence of movement, deleting the unnecessary, reversing the action, slowing things down and speeding them up. This level of experimentation would not be possible, physically or financially, with live dancers in the studio.

In the communications business we often talk of work-shopping ideas; of giving creativity the room to breathe and develop in rehearsal; of exploring how technology can enrich (not just economise or speed up) the creative process. But it strikes me that hitherto this has been more rhetoric than common practice.

For the most part we’re still stuck in our linear, demarcated approach to idea development.  Concepts are formed in camera, refined through dialectic, pre-produced, produced. It’s a rhythm without fluidity or flexibility; without much space for creative collaboration or technical experimentation.

Couldn’t we do more to open the creative process up? Perhaps we need to take some dance lessons.

 

The Oresteia: Not A Window on the Ancient World, But a Mirror on Our Own

It’s Oresteia season in London as two productions of Aeschylus’ 458 BC tragedy open in theatres across town. Why do we feel the need to revisit this dark ancient story of murder and revenge? What relevance has it for us today?

In The Oresteia a father sacrifices his daughter to win over the gods; a wife kills her husband to atone for the murder of their daughter; a son kills his mother in vengeance for the death of his father; and the cycle of killings culminates in a court case. Blimey!

The Oresteia is a trilogy of plays about duty to one’s faith and community, to one’s family and to one’s self. There’s a sense that, once the series of revenge killings is in train, it will never stop. How could it? To some extent individuals are not masters of their own destiny. They are caught in a Fate-driven chain reaction of inevitable acts.

In these respects The Oresteia is as relevant today as when it was first performed. The modern world is gripped by wars whose origins can be traced back to tit-for-tat blood feuds; disputes that are justified by reference to duty and honour and revenge.

I wonder is this true of business too? Do we sometimes find ourselves caught in a cycle of action and reaction, unable to break out of competitive role-playing, incapable of seeing beyond the injustices of the past?

Sometimes inertia is the most powerful force in any organisation and it is also the most pernicious.

 

Like a Moth to a Flame

‘Like a moth to a flame
Burned by the fire
My love is blind
Can’t you see my desire?’

Janet Jackson/ That’s The Way Love Goes

Where music is concerned I have a sweet tooth.  I think it’s coming from Essex. I preferred gospel to blues, soul to funk, disco to house, acid jazz to techno. And I had a particular weakness for female soul vocals: for Gladys, Dionne and Diana; for Anita, Randy and Roberta. In my world Aretha was always the Queen, Donna defined disco and Mary J saved hip hop.

And then there was Janet Jackson.

Janet didn’t have the soul of Maxine, the heart of Chaka or the voice of Whitney. And many of her ‘80s recordings haven’t aged well, as they’re scaffolded in Jam and Lewis’ industrial production.

But give Janet a break. She was the tenth of ten children; her father was a tough old patriarch; she was Michael’s sister. Throughout her career she demonstrated admirable independence and an open mind.

And Janet gave us That’s The Way Love Goes, a definitive work for the sweet toothed soul fan. There’s the languorous rhythm, the melodious guitar pattern and Janet’s gentle, soothing serenade; not forgetting the warehouse-set video, where Janet’s hip mates sway diffidently to the beat from the ceiling-high speakers. Not unlike my own arrangement on a Saturday afternoon.

Of course, the central image of That’s The Way Love Goes is the tragic moth bewitched by a flame. I think I understand why people are attracted to doomed love. But I have always wondered: Why are moths attracted to flames? Surely they could evolve out of the suicidal self-immolation thing, given its endless repetition?

It transpires that the world of science is not entirely sure why moths are drawn to flame either. One theory suggests that they confuse fire with luminous female pheromones. Another suggests that it’s a primitive escape reflex gone wrong. But the dominant theory seems to be that the moths mistake artificial light sources for the moon, which is their primary navigational reference point.

It’s a rather sad thought: that your core point of reference, your North Star, is in fact leading you astray, to certain death.

It’s not entirely an alien concept for commerce. Many a business sets its controls for the heart of the profits, its navigation system almost entirely geared around financial returns. Only to find that, when you prioritise profit ahead of people and product, then your profits tend to suffer. It’s the commercial form of doomed love. Intense, sad, misguided, inevitable. ‘Like a moth to a flame, burned by the fire.’

No. 45