Naked power, frissons, and what’s in a name…
One of the by-products of the solitary, authorly life is that, devoid of the distraction of colleagues, we tend to work – and think – in isolation, untroubled by the concerns of the wider world.
Which is why the arrival in the post of an unexpected ballot paper brings such a pleasing little frisson. Naked power. That’s what it is. All those pitches to consider, and the ability to make a change to the course of history.
Yes, I know. Only in a small way. But as somebody wise once observed, you can’t change the world. Only the little corner you inhabit.
But the problem with power is that to effect change for good, it needs to be wielded with consideration. For the issues, for the goals, for the likely ramifications, and other philosophical details like that.
This ballot, however, to a great extent defeats me, since it’s the election to the management committee of my professional organization, and, unsurprisingly, since it counts 9000 writers among its number, I haven’t a clue who any of them are.
So how to vote? On what criteria to make the choice, when my only source of information is the candidate’s pitch? And the candidates are all gifted writers?
You have probably never wondered about my double-barrelled surname (stay with me on this) but if, by chance, you have, here’s the lowdown. I wasn’t born with it. Much as it might be natural to assume I’m part of some aristocratic dynasty that goes back as far as the crusades (no giggling at the back, please) I was born a Barrett, part of a working-class south London family, who can trace their lineage to a skirmish in 16th century Clapham, via a couple of Spaniards, and the odd Italian.
No, I became a Barrett-Lee when Pete and I got married – an initiative borne not just out of feminist principles, but because we were wed during a time when there was favouritism towards four things above all – people who were white, middle-class, British, and male.
Pete, fresh out of medical school, was at least three of those. No, he’d never played rugby (an EXTREMELY big handicap) but on a CV, he already ticked most of the boxes. But for two things – his birthplace was Singapore, where his dad had previously worked, and his surname was Lee.
So I was ruthless. I campaigned for that hyphen in order to overcome the appalling racism of the early 1980s, which could so easily have affected his career. (Others, sadly, had no such opportunity. Do such prejudices still exist? Sadly, I reckon so.)
And so to committees, and the related business of who might be best suited to form them.
I have some experience of committees, and the one thing that strikes me is that they invariably become more that the sum of their parts. Hence if they’re diverse and full of conflict and creativity and passion they can, and do, achieve brilliant things.
But if they’re homogeneous, and confident, and in agreement about most things, they are often – even if unwittingly – inclined to perpetuate the status quo, in such a way that favours a very limited world-view.
As in committees as in life, eh? So I shall wield my power wisely.
I shall choose the man who refers to himself in the third person and, rather daringly, quotes Coolidge (‘nothing is as common as unsuccessful people with talent’. And this to a bunch of struggling creatives. Ballsy).
The woman who, rather thrillingly, self-published ‘Overcoming Gallstones’, an uninterrupted flow of bile being what every dynamic committee needs, and because she seems like a broad who will get things moving.
The woman whose name I can’t pronounce and translates air crash reports – the first because as an Englishwoman in Wales, regular mispronunciation has been the making of me, and the second because I have a hunch she’ll have an excellent sense of perspective.
And, finally, the woman who, quite by coincidence, stayed at the same villa in southern France as we did back in 1999 – and left only a DAY before we did, to boot, just three weeks after I had finished reading one of her novels. Spooky, no? And, yes, I do realise – also rather tenuous. But then, tarot and astrology endure, do they not?
So that’s me done. And via what seems as logical a way as any. Much looking forward to the first AGM.
First published in the Western Mail Saturday Magazine 11.7.15