Charles Handy at Greenbelt 2017

Charles Handy at Greenbelt 2017

A personal reflection on the great man’s visit to Greenbelt 2017 from Paul Northup, Greenbelt’s Creative Director …

If you’re of my vintage (clears throat: half a century or so on this good earth), and you’ve been in and around work and training in big organisations at all during that time, chances are you will have heard of Charles Handy.

Any form of management study invariably contains Handy titles on its reading list. His name has been synonymous with commonsense organisational theory for decades. Add to that the fact that his dulcet tones had often filled the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot on the Radio 4 Today programme as I was growing up (one of the first non-faith leaders to get that gig), and his presence of mind seemed almost familiar to me.

But I’d never thought of him in connection to Greenbelt. Not until his most recent work on his Second Curve idea.* Which coincided, by chance, with an architect Greenbelter doing some work for Charles, getting to know him a little, and being struck with an idea: what about if we invited him to Greenbelt to speak?

So, by chance, we had the contact and the in we needed. It was time to reach out to the great Charles Handy. To take a punt. Especially as his Second Curve thinking resonated so much with our festival theme of The Common Good.

Now, Charles is managed and minded – with gracious tenacity – by his wife Elizabeth. She looks after his diary and engagements and curbs his enthusiasm so that, as an 86-year-old, he can continue to speak into public life in a way that is sustainable. She is a formidable and wonderful woman.

And so it was that my tentative invitation email to Charles was greeted with a curious response: “You must come for tea”. Not the usual way things go when we’re booking artists and speakers for the festival. But I was very happy to oblige.

I felt almost boyish as I bowled up at the Handys’ for tea back in mid-February. I was welcomed in, introduced to their beautiful dog and poured tea (from a teapot) in a bone china cup. It was quintessentially English.

Elizabeth and Charles did not disappoint. At the age of 86, Charles’ eyes sparkled and his whole demeanor smiled. As I’d read his Second Curve book – a collection of short essays applying one central, devastatingly simple yet profound idea* to various facets of life (family, work, religion, politics, and so on) – I’d been reminded that a large part of Charles’ reputation was built not just on his insight but on his knack of communicating that insight in an accessible manner. He was a great writer. And now, sitting across the coffee table from him, I realised that he had this same easy-going gift in person, too. I was excited at the prospect of having him speak at Greenbelt. I knew it would be great.

But there was skepticism to overcome. Charles and Elizabeth were concerned about the religiosity of Greenbelt. “Some of our best friends are Bishops,” they explained, “and Charles used to do Thought for the Day regularly, but we’re not institutionally religious people.” “That’s fine,” I replied (summoning some of the thinking of William Blake that lies behind our theme for 2018 – ‘Acts of the Imagination’), “Greenbelt is more a spiritual than it is a religious space. It has a vision birthed of a particular Christian faith-centred worldview, but it welcomes people of all faiths and none to be there and to contribute. We’re after great art and great ideas. You fit the bill.”

By the time our cups of tea were done, we had an understanding. No payment required, just some festival tickets for a few of the family and Charles would come to us for a day. Thank you very much. I cycled back to the office elated.

It’s such a privilege to be in the middle of something that begins to shape the sort of ‘happening’ that Greenbelt at its best is all about. I knew that Charles would storm Greenbelt (even if he was still feeling a little reticent about that himself). It felt like a coup. Added to which, I love it when older thinkers and artists are celebrated and honoured at Greenbelt. That seems to me to be a small part of our counter-cultural agenda.

Over the months that followed we would get regular emails from Elizabeth as she checked in on the small practical details: Charles liked to use a lapel mic; he wanted to model the four-chair approach to the follow-up workshop session after his main set-piece; he needed AV for his first presentation, as visuals were essential to what he wanted to comunicate; and so on. Gentle, painstaking, meticulous. Yet always generous and committed.

Then came the Saturday of the festival itself when Charles would speak. Having come onto the site the evening before to have a stroll around and check it out, he and Elizabeth were back, bright and early, for his set-piece Second Curve talk in The Little Big Top. There was a huge queue outside the venue from 9am but, with the help of compere Andy Walton, we managed to squeeze almost everyone in, with a hundred or so more huddled around the edge of the tent, listening in.

Elizabeth and Charles looked pleasantly surprised at the turnout. I’d promised them it would be well attended. But, yes, they had been skeptical. We’d also made an error in the Guide and listed Charles as 90 years old (instead of 86). “People won’t come. They’ll just think it’s some old fool who’s past it,” Charles joked.

I was standing side of stage in an observing, excitable, just-in-case role. This felt like a real Greenbelt ‘moment’. I’d asked longterm Greenbelter Jacqui Christian to ‘look after’ Charles at Greenbelt and after her introduction, he stepped onto the stage and began to speak – gently, fluently, engagingly. Without notes and in a relaxed and informal manner that made us all feel at home. Much as I’d been made to feel at home over tea all those months earlier.

I could only stay for the first 10 minutes, but during that short time I looked out on the crowd in the venue from side of stage and I could almost see and hear the penny dropping – in face after face and mind after mind – as Charles started to outline his life-changingly simply yet profound thinking around The Second Curve and (as he wanted it described in the Guide) “The Changes Ahead for Life, Work and Everything”.

The Common Good required us to do future thinking, to be future-facing at the festival. And, at the age of 86, Charles Handy seemed to embody this absolutely – and with bravery and generosity.

After the festival I learned that one of our trustees approached Charles onsite and spoke to him about a project she’s working on which she felt resonated with his thinking on The Second Curve. Rather than get into it there and then, she, too, was invited around to the Handys – this time for breakfast. She spent an hour-and-half with them while they listened and responded with thoughts on her thoughts. An exchange of complete grace, generosity and deep wisdom.

I realised that this must be how Charles and Elizabeth live; giving themselves, and Charles’ ideas, away – for the common good. Charles may not be religious, but his dedication to work and life with meaning and value is a spiritual pursuit. No one who had the privilege of hearing him speak at Greenbelt this year could think any differently.

You can order Charles set-piece and follow-up workshop session on The Second Curve from our online store here.

(Or you can order all the recorded talks from Greenbelt 2017 for the bundle deal price of £50 here.)

*The Second Curve is the assertion that everything (traditionally) develops along a classic curve of growth to climax and then decline. Charles’s idea is that the trick – for facing the future and living beyond current broken models in all aspects of being human – is to learn to change tack, to jump onto The Second Curve before you reach the top, the summit, of the first curve. This paraphrasing does the idea a disservice. You need to listen to his talks and read the book.

Photo by Elizabeth Handy.