The Road to Here
So here we are, standing on the street. About to set off into this book. It could be any street anywhere but for a moment let me invite you join me in Long Acre, an elegantly curving street in London’s Covent Garden. It’s Spring 2013. And it's raining.
This is a book about how you orientate yourself through a confusing world. So before we head off, let’s take a moment to figure out how we got here.
And as we’re going to be spending a bit of time together, ambling through these pages, it also might be helpful for you know just a little about me and this Street Wisdom thingy I am supposed to have invented. I say “supposed” because truly I feel like it was an idea that I tripped over. And though I have certainly led the way for our non-profit movement, it’s actually been realised by a core of fellow wanderers (Chris, Mel, Mark, Sticky, Rachel, Mark A, Scott…) as well as a large and fast growing network of volunteers around the world.
But let’s not hurry on. If wandering is about anything, it’s about taking the time. And noticing what’s happening around you when you do.
Don’t mind the rain. We city dwellers get all hunched up and grouchy when it rains. As though it’s a personal inconvenience. Just think of it as Nature’s way of reminding us it exists, even in the city. Also, as my mother you to say to us as kids, “you won’t melt”.
If you haven’t visited, Covent Garden used to be London’s main Fruit & Vegetable market. Though there’s no sign of a garden now, back in the 1500’s that’s what it was. A walled convent garden that produced the vegetables for Westminster Abbey. It is the setting for the opening scene of Shaw’s Pygmalion and of My Fair Lady, the film of the play. It’s also home to the Royal Opera House, an imposing, ivory-coloured temple of passions and primadonnas where I spent several years as a child singer. That’s a story we might get to later. Or not. Let’s see where our conversational feet take us.
The Opera House is still much as it was when I was a kid but the area has been scrubbed up and the rotting cabbage leaves I remember being stuck to the cobbles are long gone, but you can sense the mercantile history of these streets in the burnished iron work, the paving stones and glazed colonnades.
Covent Garden is normally awash with visitors, but today the drizzle has kept the tourists away.
Let’s swing up Neals’ Yard and turn left down Monmouth Street. See that big, damp Union Jack flag hanging over that portico? It’s the Covent Garden Hotel. Once a Victorian Hospital. Courtney Love isn’t trashing her suite at the moment, though it’s happened. Across the road the full-on erotica at Agent Provocateur seems out of place until you remember Covent Garden was also at one time London’s red light district.
Right. We’ve arrived at the meeting point. A small roundabout where several streets converge on a pillar bearing six sundials. Welcome to Seven Dials. (In case you’re wondering, the seventh sundial is the pillar itself). And waiting for us are a couple of strangers. One has a clipboard. And the other a big smile.
A quick word here about strangers.
You know how you were told not talk to them? While that might be prudent for children, judging by my own experience, it’s poor advice for adults. As we meander through this book I am going to make sure we bump into some. They will all be people who’ve had some part to play in the Street Wisdom ‘story so far’. I think you’ll find they’ve each got an interesting take on things some wisdom to share and, like the guide characters that pop up in all great myths, helpful guidance for the road we’re each finding our way down.
Let me introduce you to one of them now. His name is John and he lives and works about as far from Covent Garden as you can get.
It’s officially Spring but up here on the 35th floor the weather looks threatening. Despite that, when I suggest to John that we get out of the office and go for a walk he’s grabbed an umbrella and we’re in the elevator sliding back down to street level. The office is pretty nice, by the way. All curved walls, open plan and espresso machines. But even so, John loves to get out and walk. By himself. With colleagues,. And, increasingly, with clients.
As we amble past Moreton Bay Fig trees toward the Sydney Harbour I ask him about the value of getting out of the office, even a lovely office, for a walk. John is setting a nice, easy pace. He’s a low key, laid back individual. You wouldn’t necessarily know it if you passed him in the street he’s something of a force in the business world, leading the Australasian activities of one of the world’s top management consultancies. So I guess it’s not surprising his answer is organised into three, well thought-out points.
“First, it’s very hard to go for a walk and take a 100 page powerpoint document with you. Especially on a windy day like today. I have been on a bit of a crusade for people not to take big documents to meetings because it’s easy to spend your time telling clients about the ideas you had before you arrived. Sometimes that’s relevant but I think it’s often better to listen and enquire and be curious. You can always send the document on later.”
We’re through the Royal Botanical Gardens now and sauntering alongside the iconic Sydney Opera House as John explains point two.
“A real advantage of taking to the streets - and this is why I started doing this - is it’s a bit more healthy than sitting down, drinking coffee and eating muffins. When you’re walking you’re expending calories not consuming them. We have a commitment to balance and mental health so me doing this in the middle of all the busyness is leading by example.” It’s an important point. People follow what leaders do, not what they say. And though John didn’t actually refer to ‘walking the walk’, I knew what he meant.
His third point is the most interesting to me. A real piece of street wisdom about the link between physicality and thought.
“Sitting in the office it’s easy to get immersed in the problem - stuck in it. Walking out here gives you a different perspective. You can imagine of the problem as an object you’ve left in the office back there. You can look down or across or up at the problem. Creating a bit of physical distance gives you thinking space.”
Simple ideas. But wise. The kind of wisdom that emerges when you’re wandering and bumping into unexpected people.
Which brings us neatly back to 2013, seven dials and the two strangers in the rain. In truth it;s only spitting now.
They are actually friends of mine. Confusingly they are both called Chris. Chris Barez-Brown, is the one with the with the grin. You may know his name from his life-enhancing books like Shine, Free! and Wake Up! A master of business transformation, when it comes to new creative ideas, he’s what you might call an early adopter. He’s not only here himself but he’s invited a gaggle of mates clients to join us. They will be here soon. Chris Sollett, a long time friend and ally from my other life in theatre, is a natural wanderer himself. But today he’s here to stage manage and oversee what’s about to happen. Hence the clip-board.
None of us know it yet, but this is to be the first Street Wisdom event. At the time of writing this book, Street Wisdom is an international movement. Every week, somewhere in the world, people are taking to the streets to learn, solve problems and be inspired. But back then, we had no idea this idea would take off as it has.