An Encounter with Realistic Fantasy
As I sit at my desk at the University I am filled with high anticipation at the prospect of this week’s departmental star attraction; the delivery of a presentation by Professor Stephen Linstead on the topic of ‘Realistic Fantasy’. My excitement around his visit is threefold. The first is that the invite promises to introduce us to a creative ethnographic approach to organization research. Steve’s attached resume certainly suggests that he walks in the worlds of both high academic respectability and in pioneering alternative methodologies. I greatly anticipate witnessing how these two worlds find resolution in living practice. The second attraction is his subject matter that concerns the ‘Radio Ballads’, a series of radio programmes broadcast in the UK and written by Charles Parker and Ewan McCall for the BBC between 1957 and 1964. The purpose of these ballads was to raise consciousness, allowing the listeners depth immersion in the lives of ordinary people. Songs from these programmes have been highly influential in my life, as has been the work of McCall more generally.
As I grew up in the Sixties and into the Seventies, I shared the deeply held belief that folk songs could make a difference. This difference we believed would push through both in preserving the old by capturing the experiences of our forbears and also in ushering in the new order, often in protest form. The times were a-changing indeed. I have a belief that I heard some of original ‘Radio Ballads’ at the time of their original broadcasting but this may be fanciful. I certainly heard a radio tribute to the programmes recently, and was greatly moved by the poignancy of many of the themes and songs. While browsing through a record shop in South Africa - when I lived there in the 1990’s - I found a collection of McCall’s songs, put together by his family after his death. I devoured this music, so redolent was it of times past. When I played these songs to my South African friends while living there I worried that they were simply indulging my post colonial nostalgia by listening along but then I was to discover that were very taken by the music too, recognizing in its plaintiff cadences a real cry from the heart from the voiceless, a subject of course dear to both the black and white South African liberal soul. I discovered that the only reason it was on sale in South Africa in the first place was that the album is entitled ‘Black and White,’ named after a song written shortly after the Sharpeville massacre in 1963.
The third pull towards the event was that I know, or think I know Steve. I believe he features in my life, and I know he plays an important part in my history, but I can’t locate him. I wish him to have been at that seminal Organisation Development Network conference at Buxton in 1982, but I feel that he wasn’t. I know he was at one of those conferences, but I also feel that I had another association with him, and that I then lost him. So he matters to this story. I say I am going to meet him, though I am not sure of that. In fact, I am somewhat nervous about approaching him. He may not remember me. He may remember me for reasons I would rather not be reminded of. I might be mistaken altogether. I may be trying to force synchronicity here, which is never going to work.
I join my colleagues and a man whom I believe must be Steve in a lecture room, where he is setting up both projection and sound equipment, neither of which is behaving itself. I don’t recognize him. It may be that I have dreamed him, as I perhaps dreamed hearing the original Radio Ballads. He is fully set up, and ready to go, but a recalcitrant hinged whiteboard stubbornly refuses to stay secured to the wall, repeatedly swinging in front of the screen. Steve sighs a resigned sigh, after all his efforts to get started, saying that ‘It is always the low tech that lets you down’. The Northern tones, and the implicit irony resonate immediately. Now I feel confident that I have a connection to this person, and to his muse.
Steve begins by interweaving his understanding of the intellectual bases of qualitative inquiry with an elucidation of the approach of Parker and McCall. He relates to us that Parker was accused by critics of belonging to the school of Social Realism, a charge that he hotly denied, as in his own mind he did not align himself with kitchen sink drama at all. Rather, Parker was at pains to stress that their work was fantasy, albeit a fantasy that has its basis in the lived experience of the people it portrayed, and that is supported by those peoples recorded voices, unmediated by a narrator. The charges of Social Realism persisted, Parker eventually being fired from the BBC in 1972 for holding left wing views that were unpalatable to the management then. As Steve develops his theme, it is evident that he feels great warmth and compassion for these two pioneering stalwarts, as well as towards the working class heroes that they valorize.
The tempo changes, as Steve segues into a improvisation on the theme of interpretive method. He declares that what captured him about the work of Parker and McCall is that they created a music that ‘stepped out of the lives of the people.’ They were comfortable with navigating between fantasy and reality, between living our dreams and dreaming our lives, looking for fissures, for cracks between the spaces. There was no sitting on top of data here, but the capacity to move in and around it, to tackle elusive issues, to explore enchantments and emotions. They proved unafraid as the ballads moves towards the ‘inexpressibility of negative emotion.’ There is a seamlessness here between the words and quotes on the screen and Steve’s riff. This is no wooden re-reading of words on a PowerPoint slide. He talks of the ontological dilemmas intrinsic in capturing the life of another, the epistemological challenges inherent in representing and incorporating the life of an entire social system, of the need for reflexivity, and of the craft required for the ethnographer to have presence, without that presence collapsing into narcissism, or self identification with the subject in question.
We are now fully immersed in the Radio Ballads themselves. Steve plays whole songs and fragments of songs, explicating the techniques of layering of words and music, the repetition of stanzas for reinforcement, the capturing of the poetic rhythms and gruff cadences in the voices of those working people. We learn too of the need for ‘valleys’ in song writing, to have a relatively flat narrative passage where nothing much occurs prior to a crescendo.
As the presentation diminuendos to a close, we the audience find it difficult to transition from the mood created by this show towards question and answer mode. I listen attentively as Steve is asked how to square the romanticism intrinsic in such an interpretive approach with academia’s requirements for rigour and evidence. Steve agrees that this is contested territory, but sees no irreconcilable division. It is possible that we intellectually justify our approach, yet express it poetically. He is emphatic that unless we have the courage to continue to experiment, and to take the risk of putting forward experimental work for evaluation, that this plane is not going to move forward.
On that note we break, for thoughtful conversation over sandwiches. After some hesitation, I decide to abandon reticence and introduce myself to Steve. He says that he thought he recognized me, believing that he identified my voice as I posed a question. I ask him if he had been to the Organisation Development Network conference in 1982. He says he went not in 1982, but in 1984, and that the reason he was there was because I had invited him. I am quizzical, and he explains that we met earlier in 1984, in the summer in Sweden, at the University of Lund, where we both participated in a conference on Organization Culture. This is a remarkable revelation. I feel elation that I have at last found the missing historical piece; or rather that Steve had found it for me.
As we dwell upon this historical common ground, I recount a memory of how intellectually advanced those conferences were at that time, and how little of that thinking seemed to be out and about even now. He recalls rather more earthy matters, such as my fighting off a drunken Swedish sailor late one night, of vodka, carrots and bananas party that continued through the lightest of nights to meet the dawn at about three a.m. A tale of two crazy ethnographers who ran a bookshop in the quietest middle of nowhere in Sweden paradoxically named the ‘Exploding heart of the Universe’. Steve is still in touch with the French part of this duo, going to suitably unusual party he threw in Paris a few years later.
I am thrilled and delighted to have these doors of perception opened. We talk briefly of our lives since. I remark that my memory of Steve is that he was always on the edge. He rejoins that actually he has always been on the edge of the edge, and that it has been good validation lately to be given a DLit in recognition of his contribution to the expressive. Now it is time for him to leave, for a conference in the Watershed down town on urban renewal. I thank him for the benediction of this day, saying that the subject was beautifully woven, representing as it did an ethnography within an ethnography, his ethnography of the Radio Ballads which are themselves a series of ethnographies. I drift away from the room to the tunes of McCall in my ears and a celebration of a mystery that has been solved, and on the way a fine old colleague rediscovered.
My mind is a swirl and my heart full as I make my way down the hill to home. I am feeling too restless to sit at my desk, need to move, to absorb what has occurred here. I am buoyed by my recollection of McCall’s rich life, of his acting in street theatre since age of 15, founding the Theatre Workshop with Joan Littlewood in the 1950’s, of how intellectually talented he was without the benefits of formal education. He was truly a freeborn man, clearly disinterested in the baubles and external rewards that fame had to bring. I reflect also on Steve’s life. I know little of it post 1985, but I imagine that just as McCall was a role model for so many, and continues to be, so too must Steve be a serious inspiration and mentor for others. What was impressive was the degree to which he has internalized his epistemology, as evidenced by its natural and passionate representation . Just as McCall’s miners and fisherman had a cadence and lyricism all their own as they spoke, so too did Steve in his evocation of their lives and times, demonstrating his voice with flair, compassion and imagination.
I peer through the window opened by the reclaimed Lund experience, seeing myself in a final plenary session making an impassioned plea for the need for bridge building between academia, and the proportionally much under represented practitioners of culture change from consulting, and from industry. I could imagine such an idealistic plea being made today, and it being met with a similar silence by both camps. I play with the sliding doors, and speculate as to what might have occurred if Steve and I had remained close to each other, what changes in direction might have been effected in my thinking and in my life. I surmise, also, that had I not walked through this door marked PhD I would not have remembered Steve, less still have reclaimed him. I make a commitment to grasp this slender thread, to reach out further, and discover where that might lead, not only in the reconstitution of the past, but also in the determination of the future. In addition I resolve to reach out to other mentors from my past, et al to invite them on a similar journey. I also resolve to listen afresh to my archived music, to be in touch with the memories and sensations that arise in that process. Steve continues to enlighten and warm my world to this present day, ten years later.