A lonely isle

A lonely isle is an audio project I’ve been working on with Ann and Richard. It’s a collection of anecdotes about Rockall, a remote island in the Atlantic ocean.

A lonely isle cover

You can check it out on alonelyisle.co.uk, Apple podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn and Soundcloud. The soundtrack is up for pre-order, and it’s bloomin’ lovely.

This is my version of how it came together…

Dead reckoning

This project, which I’ve always thought of as ‘Rockall‘, has been in the works for quite a while. I first read James Fisher’s book about the island in 2012, while I was looking up names for a new company (this was the era of BERG codenames and I liked the idea of naming a company after a sector in the shipping forecast).

Rockall is a tiny, tiny island in the north Atlantic. Fisher’s book is a weirdly cold account of its human and natural history, full of drama but somehow still at arms length. I was pretty taken by it. I tried to spin it into a comic anthology, a couple of video blogs, then costed out a trip to get there and film it… but something never quite gelled. I was going about it the wrong way.

In his book, Fisher talks about how the weather on one trip forced his companions to get to the island by dead reckoning. In the end that’s kind of what happened with A lonely isle. In each of these early attempts I had a very definite idea about what it should be, but I didn’t have the skill to actually make it happen. I had to surrender to the process a bit more, and just let go at each step, waiting to see where it took the idea.


Rockall was one of the ideas floating around when Ann put out a call inviting people to record with her. After we’d recorded Markov Blake I went back to Fisher’s book to trawl for anecdotes – little fragments of the island’s history we could pull together into some kind of shape.

I tried a few ways of framing these, but in the end it we kept it simple. We held onto the anecdotes, stripped out a lot of the framing material, and wound up with a script that let the islet’s visitors speak for themselves.

At the time that felt tricky. I wasn’t sure that I was actually writing anything. But in retrospect it makes sense, especially alongside projects like The Bureau of Small Observation, A barrow by a beacon and even Her Wilderness and Waves back in 2009 (a zine/album review designed to be read in a random order).

I like projects made up of fragments and facets.

Meanwhile, I’d been chatting to Richard about doing something with music for it. I think this is around the time he and Tom Armitage were working on Songs for Spoken Words, throwing open the possibility of what the project might morph into. I’d had different versions of a Spotify playlist kicking around for a while, so I shared one with him, sent the script his way, and let him take it from there.

By the time Ann and I recorded the script with Matt Addis, Richard had already thumbnailed some beautiful fragments for us. Between recording soundtracks, albums, and sessions at Abbey Road, Richard gave these little pieces room to breathe.

The six tracks tell the stories in a way that the words can’t. You can hear the clouds surrounding Fisher’s plane in We waved, they waved, feel the ground coming up in 18th September. It’s great.

The landing

Rockall’s been kicking around in one form or another for about six years now. I’m proud it’s out and, frankly, relieved. Slow projects are tough (Russell’s got a nice ‘bit’ about that in the talk he did about making a contraption for Howies).

Momentum and motivation comes in fits and starts. That’s a world away from my professional life. It’s nice to let this little bit of my brain spin down and let the project go.

Anyway, go and have a listen. If you like it, let Richard, Ann or Matt know. They did all the hard work.

Anecdotes and arguments

I did some teaching last week. It was brilliant. I met two groups of thoughtful, critical students at the Royal College of Art and The Oslo School of Architecture and Design.

In both cases I’d been invited to talk about storytelling. To give students a lens for thinking about how they present what they do.

Instead, mostly, I talked about collecting anecdotes*. Blog posts, photos, films… the kind of thing Giles has written about before. With a large enough pool of anecdotes about how and why you’ve made something, you can be selective about how you share work with the world.

In the lectures, I called that ‘building an argument’. I always picture it like using anecdotes as Lego bricks. Clicking things together to make something that stands up.

I told them to steer clear of “narratives” and “storytelling”, because I don’t really trust those ideas.

I get why people who do things for the internet talk a lot about narrative. Mostly, people who work on the internet spend lots of their time typing. Making that typing part of some epic mythology introduces some romance and drama into it.

Arguments are flexible, changeable things. I think being flexible and changeable is much more valuable than being tied to a story that you can’t critically examine.

There are no monsters. Typing isn’t battles. There is work. The best way to communicate work is show it. All the little pieces, and all the people involved in making it.

Anyway, it was a great time. I didn’t take any photos of the classes, because I thought that’d be rude. Instead, here’s a picture of some stairs the stair-making class at AHO built. It’s probably a metaphor or something.

*I also talked a lot about Rupaul’s Drag Race, which is an amazing example of TV built on anecdotes and snippets from a billion places. Like Ella says “Professional blogs are a lot like reality TV”

Moments in time

I really enjoy watching a message coalesce in an organisation. I didn’t know that until recently. I like seeing a thing come together that defines the company’s perspective for a while.

The Transformation programme was my first at GDS. Government as a Platform was a good one after that. Sprint 16 was fun for that too. The latest is Sarah’s talk for O’Reilly (yep, like all good talks there’s a version done as a blog post).

It’s the moment the threads of what IF is and how IF talks come together.

It’s also (probably) the sign that things are about to jiggle a bit.

At GDS, these moments would be the end of a journey. We’d have written it after playing with different versions of the messages in it for a few months. The talk would spell out the mission for the next year or so, and form the basis of the script for the senior team.

But for my lot (‘Creative’, basically) it’d also mark the moment we’d move on to different problems. We could, broadly, trust that people would stick to the script in the wild, quietly thinking about the next thing in the background.

I gave a version of Sarah’s talk at RightsCon earlier. It went well! I’ll do a version of it at the next event, and the event after that. And I’ll help the rest of the team use something like it at the events they attend over the next few months. Meanwhile, in the background, it’s time to think about the next one.

New job!

I’m joining IF.

Earlier this year I left GDS to try out a bunch of different things. In the last month, my jobs at IF have touched on transparent organisation design, R&D for consumer advocacy groups, describing governance models for automated decision making, plus writing talks for new people. Later today I’ll be standing out in the cold with a prototype to learn about things I can’t see. Different things = ✓

As I’ve said before, the team’s great. I’ve already been snapped typing with my headphones on in the middle of a corridor (I think about four colleagues at GDS took that picture at different points) which is a very good sign.

I’m properly excited.



Clever people, stacked

I spent a bit of the day watching parliament.tv for the oral evidence on the Digital Economy Bill. Exciting, right?

These things are (can be?) interesting. A completely alien format to most people, these committees are how law gets unpacked in the UK. And mostly they look like this…


…a bit like a court case.

I was mostly tuning in to watch Sarah from IF, but I dipped in and out of a few sessions, including one featuring Jeni Tennison from the ODI and my old boss Mike Bracken.

All of them made me feel differently stupid. There’s a lucidity to a clarity to their arguments that makes me think ‘Oh, man, that’s obvious. Why didn’t I see that?’

I forget, when I watch, that the things they tell the MPs on the panel are the results of chats and work and arguments and a bunch of reading. That there’s rigour in this stuff. That each of them are the eloquent endpoints of a stack of reckons.

(Then, after Sarah’s session, a little snippet of audio picked up by the mic…)