Snippets

Learning from the Writing on the Wall

This month’s “What I Learned From…” group writing project is what I learned from government.

As I worked for the government in Scotland for just over 10 years my thoughts immediately turned to what I learned from that experience.  And as I like to try and weave the ‘what I learned from’ projects into the theme of writing, I wondered what I could say about that.  But I wasn’t sure I could add anything to What I Learned from Writing Under Stress and What I Learned from Writing at Work.  Plus it would have led to quite a short post:

There’s way more paper than anyone will ever have time to read.  So cut, cut, cut and cut again unti you get to a (plain English) point.

As I cast my mind back over the time I spent in government I couldn’t help but remember some of the highs and lows, the triumphs and challenges, the times of heart-pumping adrenaline and the days of bone weary exhaustion.  And I couldn’t help but think of some of the triumphs and challenges of government in Scotland over the last 10 years as we stumble along to a new way of making decisions after the devolution settlement.

But never fear!  This isn’t going to turn into a political essay.  It gets to a personal point.

My mind went back to the last time I’d been at the Parliament building in Edinburgh.  Now to say this building is controversial is to make a massive understatement.  It cost way more than originally anticipated, has led to numerous enquiries and conspiracy theories, and is the subject of at least one book.  And the design is… unusual, to say the least.  Some love it, some loathe it.

But never fear! This isn’t going to turn into an architectural analysis either.  (I know hee haw about architecture.)  No, I’m getting back to a personal point.

First, about the emotional response I feel whenever I see that building.  A feeling of pride, optimism, hope, possibility.  A sense that the people who designed this building, and are now inside it making the institutions work, the people of Scotland whose parliament it is… are people who dream big dreams.

That’s the feeling I get when I see the building from a distance.  When you look over and catch a view like this:

It’s actually very hard to take a decent picture of the Parliament, or get a decent view of it.  Unlike many parliament buildings around the world, it’s not sitting up on a hill or set apart from other buildings.  It’s at the foot of the hill, in a narrow street, close by other buildings and at some points cheek by jowl with a block of social housing.

This, they say, is deliberate.  It’s to stop the parliamentarians from getting ahead of themselves.  Of thinking they’re better than others.  Of losing touch with the people they serve.

Which brings me to my second point.  The feeling I get when I walk past the building, close enough to touch its walls, and read what’s written on them.

One of the best features of this building is the choice of quotes and inspirational words that are etched into its walls. You can read the full list of sayings here.

It includes a much quoted reference from Sir Walter Scott:

when we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns - But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’ Lunnon.

Basically it means that when we had our own parliament (in Edinburgh) we could pelt the politicians with stones if they didn’t behave themselves, but it’s too far to get to London.

For me, it captures the essence of what we mean by and what is good about parliamentary democracy.  The opportunity we have to hold our politicians to account.  That government isn’t a one way street: something ‘they’ do to us.  It’s about us ‘ordinary’ citizens paying attention to what they do, making our voice heard, and doing what we can to make the whole thing work.

I don’t have a picture of it but there’s another quote on the Canongate Wall of the Parliament that gives me the same feeling: of optimism, of proximity to government, of our collective responsibility to make the whole thing work.

Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.

They’re words that come from Scotland, but they have international application, don’t you think?

Wherever  you are, whatever’s going on with your government, don’t forget the part that you can play too.

And work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.


This piece was written as a contribution to the What I Learned From Government group writing project.  The project is open to Sunday 9th November, and is open to anyone to join in.

Group writing projects are a great way to meet other bloggers and get new readers as well as a lot of fun (except when you’re being serious!).  I’d really encourage you to think about taking part.

It’s also inspired by the big day today: the U.S. 2008 Presidential Election

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count

Credits:

List of quotations on the Canongate Wall

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”

Alasdair Gray (1934-)

© Canongate Press (paraphrased from Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies. Toronto:Anansi,1972)

Photo Credits:

Looking up the Parliament and Scott quote by Joanna Young on flickr

(“Hee haw” is rhyming slang for “bu**er all”, with “all” pronounced “aw”)

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24 Responses to “Learning from the Writing on the Wall”

  1. On November 4, 2008 at 11:13 am Bo responded with... #

    Joanna, this is a marvelous piece. Though I have seen photos of the Parliament before, I knew nothing about the building and how symbolic it is. I checked it out on

    http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/vli/holyrood/index.htm

    and it seems to be an amazing place, though I can see how it would be controversial. (Though most anything done by government seems controversial!)

    I love the quotations chosen for Canongate Wall. What a lot of inspiration for the political leaders - hope they each take the opportunity to read and reflect on every one.

    ReplyReply
  2. On November 4, 2008 at 12:52 pm Robert Hruzek responded with... #

    Howdy, Joanna! Yes, I can see why something like this could be controversial. But then, that’s the thing with governments everywhere. You simply can’t please everyone all the time - and shouldn’t, for that matter.

    I love the quotes; they are certainly inspiring. Thanks for jumping in this month!

    Robert Hruzeks last blog post..What I Learned From… Government

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  3. On November 4, 2008 at 2:07 pm Bo responded with... #

    I came back because I was thinking about your comment on how difficult it is to get a good shot of the Parliament because of all the nearby buildings. I’ve never, of course, been there, but I was wondering if a shot that included the other buildings wouldn’t be a good way to photograph this striking piece of architecture - rather like it being the peoples’ building since it is such an integral part, and not so lofty or detached as most govt. buildings.

    What do you think, Joanna?

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  4. On November 4, 2008 at 2:22 pm Lissa Boles responded with... #

    Hi Joanna,

    “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”

    Breathtaking, simple and undeniably universal. Many thanks for this one: perfect timing!

    Lissa

    Lissa Boless last blog post..3 Things You Need to Know

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  5. On November 4, 2008 at 4:17 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Bo, I’m glad you found it interesting. The quotes are very inspiring. I think it’s good to remind the citizens as well as the politicians as to what it’s all about.

    I take your point about taking those kind of photos - I think it’s quite hard to do though. I had a look through the flickr pool and most were either overviews or a close up of some feature.

    http://www.flickr.com/groups/scottishparliament/

    This one will give you a sense of the proximity to some old buildings:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/21138216@N00/205194028/in/pool-scottishparliament

    These two will give you an idea of how in places the buildings are jumbled together (partly because they had to incorporate some old buildings that were protected)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/stonefaction/48378017/

    http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/nmCentre/images/latest/PreviewPages/PreviewPage13.htm

    I’ll have another go myself next time I’m in Edinburgh!

    ReplyReply
  6. On November 4, 2008 at 4:18 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    I hope you found it of interest Robert. Thanks once again for organising such an interesting WILF

    ReplyReply
  7. On November 4, 2008 at 4:18 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Lissa, it’s what I’m wishing for you all today and over the days and weeks to come.

    ReplyReply
  8. On November 4, 2008 at 7:10 pm Karen Swim responded with... #

    Oh Joanna, I am sitting here with a big grin on my face. You combined the project theme with writing and demonstrated this month’s theme of experimenting. I loved the way you played with language today (yes I noticed). The words so profound yet I also felt the joy in the words, a lilting harmony as they seemed to sort of skip along the page in glee. Your final quoete, “And work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation” is universal. The powerful words “as if” are two which can be applied to every area of our life. Live as if you are in the early days of a better you. Thank you Joanna for the wonderful post today!

    Karen Swims last blog post..Paralyzing Perfectionism

    ReplyReply
  9. On November 4, 2008 at 7:39 pm Cath Lawson responded with... #

    Hi Joanna - as much as I hate to see modern looking building spoiling Edinburgh, this is an awesome piece.

    Before cars were invented I’m betting Edinburgh was a bloody long journey from London.

    But I love the idea of living like we work in the early days of a better nation. That’s something we can all do to improve the world.

    ReplyReply
  10. On November 4, 2008 at 8:53 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Karen, thank you, you noticed more in this post than I realised when I was writing it! The “as if” approach is very powerful, and as you say can be applied in many areas of our life.

    Thank you once again for being my most constructive and inspiring commenter!

    Cath, I know folk have mixed views about the building, but for me, it works. Edinburgh still seems a long way to London when the trains are jiggered - and as you say must have been a bloomin long way before cars and decent roads.

    Glad you like the quote. It’s one I often say to myself when trying to refocus on what matters.

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  11. On November 4, 2008 at 10:53 pm Bo responded with... #

    Thanks, Joanna, for the links. The photos are fascinating. A place I will put on my list of places I would like to see.

    I wasn’t sure if the space would allow such a photo to be inclusive of the nearby buildings, but the concept itself is one I like.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    ReplyReply
  12. On November 5, 2008 at 12:09 pm wilson responded with... #

    Joanna, it’s a well written article about what you’ve learned from the government…

    Well, instead of complaining about how bad or terrible the government was, it’s better to give them more time to think about and correcting what was wrong in the very beginning!

    wilsons last blog post..The Hair Care Tips 4: The Speed of Hair Growth is Not Related With the Frequency of The Hair Cut!

    ReplyReply
  13. On November 5, 2008 at 7:02 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Wilson, I often think the pressure to deliver quickly is often what gets in the way of good government. Some things do need more time, and maybe we should allow politicians more space to get on with things.

    ReplyReply
  14. On November 7, 2008 at 6:24 pm Robyn McMaster responded with... #

    Joanna, I so agree with what you share, “That government isn’t a one way street: something ‘they’ do to us. It’s about us ‘ordinary’ citizens paying attention to what they do, making our voice heard, and doing what we can to make the whole thing work.”

    I’m hoping we make it a two-way street with Barak Obama new at the helm in the U.S. He can’t do it without us, nor us without him!

    Thanks for very thoughtful entry to Robert’s “What I Learned from Government? challenge.

    Robyn McMasters last blog post..What I Learned from a Government Deportation Notice

    ReplyReply
  15. On November 7, 2008 at 7:24 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Robyn, one of the reasons I feel most optimistic about Obama’s election is because of the emphasis on the ‘power of we’. I very much he and all of you can make it a two-way street too.

    ReplyReply
  16. On November 10, 2008 at 9:42 pm Ellen Weber responded with... #

    Thanks Joanna, for the inspirational quotes - that remind a person of the value of finding a place and making a difference. Now that is HOPE!

    ReplyReply
  17. On November 11, 2008 at 12:10 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Ellen, I’m glad you found the quotes of value. Interesting point about place and making a difference. Some of the quotes are about the beauty and wildness of Scotland and at first glance you’d wonder what they have to do with a parliament - but of course it’s the love and appreciation of the land, history, culture and heritage that can motivate us as citizens and ‘them’ as politicians to work to creating a better world.

    ReplyReply
  18. On November 12, 2008 at 3:48 pm Jackie Cameron responded with... #

    You know Joanna - I hated that building with a passion as it was being built and I really struggle with the outside of it on the entrance side still. But I think inside it is beautiful. Even the stark plain walls in the entrance hall… I got to sit in one of the MSP’s chairs in the Chamber and I can’t describe how thrilling - and just a little moving - it was. There are many flaws in the Scottish Government but I have found it so much easier to rub shoulders with those decision makers over the past couple of years. Even though I am not a political person I find that I am often at events which an MSP is hosting - and you know what? - They are human beings doing a job. Unlike most of us though they have no job security….
    Great post!

    Jackie Camerons last blog post..First rule of effective networking - be nice!

    ReplyReply
  19. On November 12, 2008 at 3:58 pm Colin responded with... #

    Amazing essay, really loved reading that.

    Scotland has seen a lot of change since 1997!?

    Colins last blog post..Graffiti Creator

    ReplyReply
  20. On November 12, 2008 at 10:15 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Jackie, I know what you mean, esp when you consider how much it cost. But it does have something special. I like the way the light falls inside, and that you can see people moving around and having meetings in other parts of the buildings.

    And yes its proximity does make politics and parliamentarians much closer to ‘ordinary folk’ and that can only be a good thing.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Good to catch up with you on Twitter today!

    ReplyReply
  21. On November 12, 2008 at 10:20 pm Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Colin, hello, and thanks.

    Yes, I guess it has. Devolution is still in its early days, historically speaking, but there’s been a huge amount of change and I think progress since then.

    ReplyReply

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