Best Eight – How Novels Can Help You In Business

Business has its own literature, a whole range of books, describing best practice in all kinds of areas. But what about a novel? Could a novel be helpful to someone running a business?

It is easy to put a divide between useful writing, and writing designed for entertainment. But let’s not judge too quickly. A novel will impart wisdom and advice, but does so with a characteristically light touch. There are exceptions of course. Ayn Rand is hardly subtle in her cheerleading for the free markets; but generally speaking a novel will present a set of contradictions. The novelist, rather than giving a simple answer to reconciling these contradictions, will tend to stand back and see how things play out.

Think of the classic novel From Here To Eternity by James Jones, which describes life on a United States Army base in Hawaii in the months before and just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The book is really about leadership and the way people work together. Broadly speaking, James Jones presents us with lazy soldiers who just do what they are told, and conscientious, principled, potentially disruptive soldiers who stand up for what they believe is correct and true. Many of the army commanders only value the obedient solider, with tragic problems ensuing.

Applying this to the business world, let’s think about that typical interview question “describe your strengths and weaknesses”. A novel tends to show that strengths and weaknesses are interchangeable, and are better seen as a set of characteristics which play out well or badly depending on circumstances. A novel-reading interviewer is highly unlikely to be thinking “is this a strong or a weak person?” Instead they’ll be wondering: “is this person going to be happy working with us?” Or “does this person have something that our team lacks at the moment, or has in excess?”

Which brings me to my new book, Best Eight. This novel was inspired by an odd fact I came across whilst idly, and accidentally, watching a documentary about rowing a few years ago. An extremely healthy looking young man was explaining that selecting a competitive, eight person rowing crew was not about choosing the eight best performers on a rowing machine. A good rowing crew is mysteriously more than the sum of its parts. It’s best eight, not eight best. Out of this came all kinds of interesting possibilities. There was potential unfairness in the way a competent rower might possibly be passed over in favour of someone less competent. Equally, there was a sense of tolerance in the way we should withhold judgement about who is worthy and who is not. A narrow definition of merit shuts the door on people who have unexpected things to give.

So, I wondered, could we stretch this idea out? Let’s think up a bizarre scenario – maybe at some distant time in the future, a King of Earth wants his grandson and heir to extend the monarchy to Mars. The boy is reluctant to face his responsibilities, so the King decides that rowing might instil the necessary grit. Could there be a place in the Oxford Blue Boat for a future prince, who is quite possibly the worst rower at Oxford University? Could there be some way for this unlikely person to be one of the best eight, even if he is certainly not one of the eight best? I set out to explore this, not to make some prescription for the difficult business of creating a team, but to give a feel for the complications involved. A novel will not give answers, but show us the problems which we have to be aware of in finding an answer that works for us.

There are many novels which will help give perspective on all aspects of life, business included. In conclusion here are just an few more great books which might have a particular relevance to the challenges of running a business. Enjoy:

Death Comes For The Archbishop by Wills Cather – a Roman Catholic clergyman has to win over people from a wide variety of places and backgrounds, when he takes over the diocese of New Mexico in the late nineteenth century.

Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy by John Le Carre – a tale of double agents during the Cold War. The book is very interesting on the relative nature of qualities that make a person good at a particular job.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – an inspirational teacher at a Scottish school in the 1930s fires the imagination of pupils with her admiration for the Nazi Party in Europe. An unsettling look at notions of authority, leadership and belonging.

Things Fall Apart by Achebe China – a young man living in a traditional, late nineteenth century Nigerian tribal society, tries to climb the greasy pole of success, at a time when African and British definitions of success collide.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid – the story of a high flying business consultant who leaves his job at an American firm soon after 9/11 to return to his native Pakistan. A study in the way the mindset of fundamentalism can worm its way into all aspects of life, religious, personal and business.

Lord Jim by Jospeh Conrad – a sailor makes a mistake at work and pays the price, in a way that makes you question whether we are too quick to judge the performance and competence of others.

Monarchs Without Borders – The History Behind Best Eight

My new book, Best Eight, is about a royal family of the future trying to use dynastic manoeuvrings to overcome divisions between Earth and settlements on Mars. Unlikely as this scenario sounds, there is plenty of history behind the book’s fanciful future. In our own divided times the UK’s Queen is a source of national pride. We should remember, though, that until relatively recently, the interests of a monarch typically went across borders.

The history of monarchy in Europe has had an international flavour, ever since the Roman Empire collapsed. From the ninth century, a monarch known as the Holy Roman Emperor presided over a loose confederation of European territories centred on present day Germany and Italy. From the eleventh century, the Norman and Angevin kings ruled both England and areas of present day France. From the thirteenth century, the Hapsburg monarchy began to develop, like a multi national company, with branches in Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary, Bohemia and Spain.

I could go into a lot more more complicated detail, but suffice to say the story of European royalty is not about nationalism. In fact a historian with the great name of H.G. Koenigsberger, has come up with the term “composite monarchy” and “composite state” to describe a typical European monarch and their domain.

So for centuries, monarchs had presided over composite states rather than countries. This very much included the UK royal family. Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II’s great great grandmother, was known as “the grandmama of Europe”. Members of her largely German derived family were present in royal courts across the continent. Victoria’s daughter, Princess Victoria, was actually mother of the Kaiser, the monarch of Germany during the First World War. You’d have thought that such fraternal links would have helped prevent something as terrible as the First World War. And, indeed, once they realised the gravity of the situation, Europe’s royals did try to stop what was happening. But despite a blizzard of telegrams between royal cousins in different countries as war approached, they were not able to resist generals, politicians, arms manufacturers, mobilisation timetables and nationalist fervour whipped up by popular newspapers. The war happened, and by its end the three great royal houses of Europe – the Russian, Hapsburg, and German had all disappeared. The British monarchy only survived by hiding an international nature behind a patriotic disguise. George V identified himself with the wartime lives of his subjects, touring hospitals and arms factories. He changed the family name from Saxe Coburg Gotha to the more British sounding Windsor. Other royal titles also had a make-over. It was a question of here’s a map – choose somewhere British, that’s not too industrial. The Duke of Teck became the Marquis of Cambridge; Prince Alexander of Teck became the Earl of Athlone; Prince Louis of Battenberg became the Marquis of Milford Haven; and Prince Alexander of Battenberg became the Marquis of Carisbrooke.

In this way the British monarchy survived, by denying its reality. That reality had been crushed in the nationalism of the First World War. Monarchy had hardly been a perfect system of government – the Russian royal family acted as autocrats, and the Kaiser has been described as a bombastic sabre rattler, who was too late in his desperate efforts to make amends by using his family contacts to try to find peace. But though governments largely ended any role for monarchy after 1918, previous arrangements were perhaps preferable to what followed. The fall of international kings and queens led on to the rise of nationalist dictators, the legacy of which remains with us in independence movements to this day. It is almost symbolic that the trigger for the First World War was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, by a Serbian separatist.

So next time you see the Queen held up as a national symbol, it is worth remembering that the history of monarchy does not support this. Best Eight is a whimsical picture of the real history of monarchy translated into the future.

Introducing Best Eight

A few weeks ago I posted an article about sending my new science fiction book to an editor at a sci-fi imprint, who judged it as “not science fiction”. Science fiction is a very diverse genre, covering the portrayal of science in the future, and often in the present and past as well, except where it doesn’t involve science at all, as in speculative fiction, alternate history, or in the related category of fantasy. Writer Damon Knight has described this enigmatic type of writing as “what we point to when we say it”. So setting out to write sci-fi only to have an editor suggest that the book does not fall into that category, felt like a kind of achievement in itself. Science fiction is what we point to when we say it, except for that book Martin Jones wrote.

Now, finally, the book is available on Amazon Kindle. And oddly, that experience of not immediately finding a seat in the sci-fi boat is very fitting for what I set out to write about. The novel is called Best Eight, and was inspired by an odd fact I came across whilst idly, and accidentally, watching a documentary about rowing a few years ago. An extremely healthy looking young man was explaining that selecting a competitive, eight person rowing crew was not about choosing the eight best performers on a rowing machine. A good rowing crew is mysteriously more than the sum of its parts. It’s best eight, not eight best. Out of this came all kinds of interesting possibilities. There was potential unfairness in the way a competent rower might possibly be passed over in favour of someone less competent. Equally, there was a sense of tolerance in the way we should withhold judgement about who is worthy and who is not. A narrow definition of merit shuts the door on people who have unexpected things to give.

So, I wondered, could we stretch this idea out? Let’s think up a bizarre scenario – maybe at some distant time in the future, a King of Earth wants his grandson and heir to extend the monarchy to Mars. The boy is reluctant to face his responsibilities, so the King decides that rowing might instil the necessary grit. Could there be a place in the Oxford Blue Boat for a future prince, who is quite possibly the worst rower at Oxford University? Could there be some way for this unlikely person to be one of the best eight, even if he is certainly not one of the eight best? And so the game was on. The challenge was to find a way for the prince to win a place in the boat and go on to fulfil his destiny. The other challenge was to take a book set in the future, but playing out in the most traditional of locations, and find a seat for it in the sci-fi boat.

To see what happened, follow the link below. Enjoy.

History And Statues According To The Simpsons

The boarding up of a statue of Winston Churchill this week reminded me of an episode of The Simpsons, where clever Lisa is given an assignment to write an essay on Jebediah Springfield, founder of the town of Springfield. The town’s 200th anniversary is only a week away, and all the school children must write about Jebediah. Most children trot out the usual story, but conscientious Lisa goes to the town museum to get extra information. There she meets kindly curator Hollis Hurlburt who shows her the museum’s precious Jebediah exhibits. These include “his fife on which he sounded the sweet note of freedom”, and also his chamber pot. While Hollis is off checking his microwaved jonny cakes, Lisa has a go at playing a tune on the fife, but all she succeeds in doing is blowing out a rolled up sheet of paper, on which Jebediah had written his secret confession:

“Firstly, I did not tame the legendary buffalo. It was already tame. I merely shot it. Secondly, I have not always been known as Jebediah Springfield. Until 1796 I was Hans Sprungfeld, murderous pirate, and the half wits of this town shall never learn the truth! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

History might have the avuncular image of Hollis Hurlbut, but it is a fraught subject. Countries have their national myths, which aren’t the same as history. Problematic statues are only the start of it.

Springfield’s town procession is a bit like a coronation for the UK. Lots of people turn out, children wave flags, and there is a sense of togetherness and celebration. But certain elements of the British coronation ceremony would have made Hans Sprungfeld proud, and would have given Lisa much to worry about. For example, consider the coronation chair, the centre-point of the proceedings, where a monarch sits to be crowned. If you look carefully you will see a big hunk of stone beneath the chair. This is called, rather ostentatiously, The Stone of Destiny. The Stone is actually the great symbol of Scotland. It was taken from Scotland in 1296 when fearsome English king Edward I invaded Scotland, massacring Berwick’s entire population in the process. Edward understood the symbolism of national identity, and taking the Stone of Destiny back to London with him, he made sure that all English monarchs to come would be sitting on Scotland from the moment they were crowned.

Edward dealt out similar treatment to Wales. In 1282 Edward set about subduing Wales and bringing it under English control. He demolished Wales’s equivalent of Westminster Abbey, the monastery at Aberconwy, and built Conwy Castle on top of it. He then gave the title of Prince of Wales to his son and heir, just to remind Wales who was really in charge. I can imagine Lisa Simpson getting up at the investiture ceremony of a modern Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle, and telling people all about it.

But then before we get too down on England, Lisa could also tell you that Wales and Scotland have silly national myths of their own. Wales may talk of struggles against England, but Wales, despite present day assemblies, has never really existed as a centralised country beyond its common language. And Scotland has created myths to make its history look more continuous than it really is. The Stone of Destiny is actually one of these myths. From the thirteenth century Scottish historians were claiming an impossibly early date for the Stone’s arrival in Scotland. The aim was to give Scotland a longer and more impressive history than it actually possessed (see The Invention of Scotland by Hugh Trevor Roper).

Sadly, the function of history is, and has always been, to support the political interests of the present. This is what people are referring to when they talk of “proud” history. The residents of Springfield are proud when they quote Jebediah Springfield, who is supposed to have said that “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”. But as Lisa discovered with her problematic researches, history is frequently not proud, and using history as a source of national pride or national unity is asking for trouble.

After Lisa gets an F for her essay, Jebediah Springfield Super Fraud, she forces Hollis to admit that he knew the truth of Jebediah all along. He confesses to removing offending evidence, and agrees to help Lisa stop the town procession. But when it comes to it Lisa cannot bring herself to ruin Springfield’s fun. She marches with everyone else in the celebration. Poor Lisa. What would you do? We face the same dilemma. But you can be sure of one thing – if you base your personal identity on Jebediah Springfield and the place he represents, then at some point Jebediah will turn out to be Hans Sprungfeld, and the place he symbolises will disappoint and become meaningless. It is better to base your identity on who you are, rather than on who you think somebody else is.