Posted 7 months ago by John


I write a day before the election, a day which is captured perfectly by Scotland’s favourite word: dreich. It is not only the weather that is dreich. Politics is, unsurprisingly, as much of a shout-fest at the end of the year as it was at the start. Untruths pour from some politicians’ mouths as easily as they did three years ago, when I started working on this project. As this collaboration in assertion and counter-assertion subsumes political will, the homeless rise on the streets, knife crime rises with disaffection and climate change – rising seas, wild fires, floods – impresses itself as the challenge rising prosperity will not meet.
Never more than now have we needed the values and the tool-kit that come with conversation: the willingness to meet as equal partners, bringing an openness to change. The title of the project was A Year of Conversation 2019; not The Year of Conversation. Every year needs to be a year of conversation. This has been, above all, a collaborative project. Partnerships have been formed with, in the main, cultural organisations which saw conversation as central to their work. The website is the record of who our partners have been and the contributions they have made (as individuals or as organisations) to the year. What I write here are only the memories that come to mind from a year packed with activity.
The year, and the two years leading up to it, have been full of enriching conversations. As Alastair Reid wrote - ‘Curiosity/will not cause [the cat] to die - /only lack of it will’ - and the value of curiosity became something we emphasised throughout. In partnership with Glasgow University’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies, A Year of Conversation presented A Day of Curiosity at Wigtown Book Town, where lecturers were invited to give brief talks, leading to conversation with the audience, about what had stirred their curiosity and how that had shaped their lives. The Royal Society of Edinburgh returned to curiosity as a theme in their programme, Curious, during the Edinburgh Festival, during which I took part in four sessions on various themes.
For The Scottish Book Trust’s Book Week Conversations Podcasts, I directed four podcasts – Conversations about Reading, about Childhood, about Home and about Language. The writers were given an outline structure but what was most important was that each was curious about the other: these were conversations, not interviews. That their conversations continued after the recording had ended is a sign of the genuine engagement with each other – something that comes over in the podcasts.
The most wide-ranging event of the year was undoubtedly Scotland and The Arctic: A Conversation, which was a collaboration led by A Year of Conversation and the Scottish International Storytelling Festival and involved a number of organisations based in and around Dumfries. A highlight of the two weeks was the Inuit poet and performer, Jessie Kleemann, performing her piece, The Arctic in Pain, at Moat Brae House. The ‘festival’ also featured an all-day conversation at GU Dumfries, which attracted contributions from a number of significant organisations including the Scottish Government and the Polar Research Policy Initiative. “The time has come for Scotland to re-evaluate its connections to and relationships with the Arctic.” It is a conversation that has every chance of being furthered.
The website highlights many ‘conversation events’ brought into other programmes, from StAnza’s contribution to the theme of Translation as Conversation to Wigtown Book Festival’s Wigtown Feasts. In another collaboration, a series of short essays on Translation as Conversation ran on Publishing Scotland’s Books from Scotland on-line magazine throughout the year, while also being published on our Conversations site. The Conversations site focuses on many of the themes of the year: childhood, place, language, the arts, memory, walking, conversation itself. The year had begun at the RSE with an all day event, The Art of Conversation. Among a series of engaging sessions, learning of the formation of Nicaraguan Sign Language from Marieke Shouwstra remains one of my year’s most heartening lessons and I’m grateful that Marieke agreed to write a piece for the Conversations website about it.
But it is perhaps in the small print that A Year of Conversation has had the greatest effect: in the Conversation Toolbox first designed for A Day of Conversation with partners, Voluntary Arts Scotland and The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, re-designed twice for, respectively, The Scottish Storytelling Centre during the Edinburgh Festival and a project with the title The Culture of Encounter which several university libraries ran during Book Week. The Toolbox encourages conversations on the smallest scale, such as these:
6. On your Day of Conversation, decide to start conversations with strangers – on the top deck of a bus, in the train carriage, at the bus stop, in the park. If you run a café or some other place where people gather, you could make a sign to let people know that certain tables are Conversation Tables and place some conversation starters there.
7. Take a seat or more outside. You are in southern Europe - greet people as they pass. Have a game of chess or snakes and ladders or a glass of wine. Invite them to sit with you.
8. In your group of friends or within your organisation, have THE conversation you always feel you aren’t having, but need to have. Bring the elephant into the room.
9. Take advantage of your Day of Conversation to make a difficult phone call, to have a difficult conversation.
At the very start of the year, I held a conversation with the foreign correspondent Allan Little in Dumfries. We talked about his childhood and about the world he had entered as a foreign correspondent and what he had seen: some terrible things. I asked him how, in spite of all, he remained optimistic. He replied, ‘It’s a lifestyle choice.’ It reminded me of W. H. Auden, who said, ‘We must strive to be cheerful.’ At one point in my life, this seemed a negligible ambition, but the older I get the nobler it seems.
A few weeks ago, during Scotland and the Arctic: A Conversation, I received a similar message. Thousands of pinkfeet geese winter at the WWT at Caerlaverock. Each day they fly over Dumfries to their feeding grounds and each evening they return as the sun sets. Scotland’s Natural Heritage was keen to mark this passage and to show that the geese too were part of the experience of the town. The call went out – Geese over the Town! There would be hot drinks and information to hand between 7 and 8 pm when the geese would be flying overhead. Quite a sight too. A projection had been arranged onto the town square, Keep Looking Up. Only the geese didn’t show. I arrived to a few desultory folk and the projection which seemed to be mocking them. But there was to be a reprise the following week. I couldn’t have the projection again, so I had 200 badges made with ‘Keep on looking up’ printed on them. My wife and I were resting on our bed, when the cacophony of geese passed over our house. ‘What’s the time? What’s the time?’ It was half past five. Geese 2 – Desultory Folk 0.
Yet what remains is the message, Keep on Looking Up. Of course, one can play it in a 'Candide' way, but also in a way in which the ‘looking up’ is supported by some kind of action: the kind of changes that an openness in conversation can yield. It’s for that reason that the final project of A Year of Conversation is one entitled Hope Action. It binds Hope with Action in 2020 and ‘Keep on looking up’ happens to fit it perfectly. (Further information is available on the website.)
I would like to thank everyone who has supported us in A Year of Conversation 2019, by partnering us in an event, by contributing (to) an event, by writing for Conversations, by showing interest through a tweet or a conversation. Many conversations I had with people never led to anything specific. But they gave me their time and they engaged with me: I’ve never had a dull conversation about conversation. I remain convinced that there are few events that cannot be strengthened by an added focus on conversation; on the nurturing of genuine conversation. But I also recognise the challenges and the demands that organisations face to meet their own ambitions.
I would like to thank the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust for supporting the project when it needed it most. My thanks are also due to Cathy Agnew, Mat Norbury, Faith Liddell and to John Molloy, Engagement Officer at Moat Brae, who has been the constant throughout this year, contacting partners, maintaining the website, tweeting and encouraging.
Many thanks to you all and (in spite of all) KEEP ON LOOKING UP!
Tom Pow

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