How many people I wonder can remember back to a particular school lesson and acknowledge the profound effect it had on them in later years? For me it was 1980 and the start of a new school year. I was 13 and sitting day dreaming out of the window waiting for the teacher to arrive for an English lesson, not my favourite subject. The teacher duly arrives along with this wild haired man – Seamus Heaney. I can’t remember if we had been told he was coming or if it was sprung on us, either way having ‘famous Seamus’ in your classroom was a pleasant distraction from the usual tedium.
He introduced himself as a poet and writer and talked for a bit about his background, he grew up in the rural area of Bellaghy not far away from my hometown of Coleraine and as a former teacher himself he was very passionate about sharing his experiences with local schools. He asked if anyone read much poetry? I can’t remember how many hands went up, not many I suspect. He then asked if anyone liked to draw? Quite a few hands went up this time, including mine. Poetry he explained was very much like drawing, but rather than drawing shapes and objects on paper he used words to paint his pictures. Giving us a minute to absorb this revelation he then asked us to close our eyes and began to read one of his poems…
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.
Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.
My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Fast forward one or two years! The words of that softly spoken man came back to inspire men when I was searching for a name for my own design agency, to underscore how I approached my work. For a long time my view of what sort of design projects worked best were the ones where the ‘drawings’ interacted with and complimented the words to form a narrative. The timing of this happened to coincide with the inaugural Dark Angels creative writing course I was about to embark upon, under the tutelage of renowned business writers and founders of 26, John Simmons and Stuart Delves. A three night literary retreat in rural Totleigh Barton, Devon helped to shape the direction I wanted my work to take. I believed that every business has it’s own unique story to tell and that by uncovering this and using it as the starting point for the design project it would deliver a much more engaging and effective result. All I needed then was a way of describing this process, the beginning of a story. In Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf I found the answer, an effective colloquial approach to introducing stories. So… it begins.
In memory of Seamus Heaney 13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013
Image courtesy of Colin Davidson