‘Aligned ambition’: that’s the key underpinning that’s helped all 26’s events and projects succeed and started to spread a joy about language, argues Chairman of the board and co-founder of The Storytellers, Martin Clarkson. He explains:
“The founders’ ambition was they would spread ideas about the joy of language and good writing and get the wider world to have a better appreciation of words and language in everyday use. Whether it’s on the side of a packet of soap or it’s on the back of a poster on the street or it’s simply the opening pages of an annual report, if that begins to be an easier, simpler, more entertaining read and something that grabs people’s inner self, then that’s wonderful. That’s what they wanted to achieve.”
Back in 2002, the founders were frustrated by the fact, he says, that “at one end of the scale, the works of great authors and great poets were being celebrated, and yet the very people who were doing the celebrating were settling for second best on their annual reports and their day-to-day business papers. They didn’t appear to realise that the skills and the emotional input that goes into those great pieces of work could also, and should also, be available in business writing. Why was it that they settled for something less?”
There was a trend for businesses to re-brand at that time: “Businesses started hiring wonderful photographers to take beautiful pictures,” he explains. “They hired artists to do wonderful graphics in their studios on the packaging, but when it came to the words, they thought everybody could do it – the tools of the trade were so freely available: ‘We can all write. Why don’t we just write what’s in our heads?’
“Words became the last thing to consider in this world of packaging, on business papers, on reports, on presentations and were often carelessly put together on a short-term basis. There was insufficient respect for the actual wordsmiths writing the copy. And yet out there were a group of people who were wordsmiths and were doing a wonderful job with wonderful writing but who felt under-appreciated in the world they were living in.”
This was the impetus that drove the founders to get together. But there was an added ingredient, Martin believes, that created sticking power: “Before any great organisation is formed, the founders need to be aligned and I think there was a lot of alignment going on in those early stages. Although they were mostly boys at the table, boys have a very difficult habit of nodding agreement when their soul inside isn’t happy. Sharing and aligning their views and prioritising what they thought they could achieve was a very important part of the launch period, so that as the first activities began they were focused towards a combined aligned ambition. The organisation grew from there.
“Once you’ve nailed your ambition in the sky, you can then take a wild choice of tactics to get you there and 26 has enjoyed itself here,” Martin concludes. “It’s induced business writers to write in a variety of more entertaining ways, it’s made writers link up with graphic designers and photographers – in fact, it’s very strong on buddying writers to other areas and art forms. And all 26 is doing all the time is getting towards that appreciation in the sky. People look at the things 26 members have created and say, ‘Wow, I really love this piece of writing. Why am I enjoying this writing?’ They start to understand the skill involved.”
In April 2002, Jim Davies, who was then in transition between being a journalist and becoming a copywriter, and who is now a writer, editor and consultant at Totalcontent, wrote a piece for a regular Design Week column on tone of voice – at its most basic level tone of voice or TOV is how brands articulate themselves verbally. The article came out with the title, ‘Designers should be more aware of the power of words when creating a brand’.
Jim says: “It was in the very early days of tone of voice when not many companies knew what it was or were doing anything about it. I wrote a piece bemoaning the fact that design agencies didn’t really appreciate writers all that much, and I ended it with a sort of call to arms.” At the end of his article, Jim said: “Some sort of collective representation may be appropriate, whereby designers and clients could not only be educated as to the potential of tone of voice, but also source valuable, like-minded collaborators.”
A seed was sown. Down the road, on another cold London street (April is the cruellest month, remember), fellow business writer, Ben Afia, read the article and picked up the phone. Ere long, the 26 founders (who didn’t yet know that that’s what they would become) were shooting the breeze about writerly common ground over coffee and cinnamon buns.
To find out what happened next, hotfoot it to Beginnings.
It’s nice that 26’s first decade ended not only with a cake (in the shape and colours of a Sherbet Fountain) and some champers at 26’s third writing festival, Wordstock, but also with the organisation’s first ever prize.
In November 2013, 26 won the British Book Design and Production Award for its book, 26 Treasures. This was splendid news, especially as 26 Treasures had to battle stiff competition from some extremely famous stories: Random House’s The Great Gatsby and The Odyssey published by Walker Books. It’s even more exciting since the 26 Treasures book was published thanks to crowd-funding through Unbound. Why did it win? It’s beautifully laid out and illustrated, of course. Hip hip hooray!
The 26 Board has had two awaydays – both helmed by Board member, Martin Lee – over the course of its first 10 years (one in 2008 and another in 2012) to check that everyone was still motivated and enthused by the collective’s original purpose, which is: ’26 is here to inspire a greater love of words, in business and in life’. These awaydays were also about looking back and celebrating 26’s achievements as a basis for steering a strong and exciting course into the future. “I think we almost instinctively know when it’s time to go round it one more time,” says Martin.
The Board looked again at the 26 brand on both occasions. As Martin explains: “We ended up feeling very happy with it; we felt it was still doing a good job for us and didn’t need to be changed”. In the 2012 session, they also considered new ideas and innovations, such as a mentoring scheme and a physical building. Although these haven’t become realities, the key thing was to have the appetite to debate and think through what such ideas may mean.
Rather disappointingly, there’s been no Go(ing) Ape or zooming down zip wires for the Board; nonetheless, they wouldn’t have qualified as awaydays without some slightly daffy stuff. “One of the exercises I sometimes run with clients is to ask, ‘If you didn’t exist what would the gap be?’ Martin adds. “You can do that by writing epitaphs. You then tend to get a whole lot of sardonic comments about clients’ own brands.”
Here then for your delectation, from the epitaph exercise in 2008, are some of the things Board members thought might be on 26’s tombstone if it ceased to exist back then. We’re not saying who wrote what (though we do take bribes – I mean, donations):
“Gone, but not forgotten”
“Well read, well dead”
“It’ll need to be invented again”
“We’ll be back”
“We started some fires”
“They were interesting”
Not bad guys, but there’s no requiescat in pace just yet as 26 is alive and kicking, bursting free of its childhood bonds. Maybe next time members could club together and send the Board on an army assault course? That would sort the sans serifs from the serifs.
The Bard & Co: Shakespeare’s role in Modern Business (Cyan Books, 2007), was one of the several books 26 produced in partnership with Cyan Books (Cyan and Marshall Cavendish sponsor 26 for a 19-month period). Each writer from 26 was paired with a Shakespeare play and one of his company’s original 26 ‘Principall Actors’. With hands suitably tied, they were then asked to write a chapter focusing on Shakespeare’s influence on twenty-first century business. The launch took place at Shakespeare’s Globe at Bankside, London.
One of the writers, recovering bass player, Ezri Carlebach, remembers it fondly: “It combined my interest in business communications with a chance to do something different. There was a wonderful group of people; we had sessions at Shakespeare’s Globe with Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s Artistic Director. All the contributions were great. And the book was ahead of its time because we’re now hearing that businesses need to chip away at their common sense of reality to discover the great stories and purpose that lie beneath.”
The book was co-edited by Jim Davies and John Simmons. That’s another big collaborative thing 26 goes in for – the projects all have co-editors. What’s the collective noun for a group of editors? No idea but if the editors were ferrets, they’d be called a business, which ties in nicely, doesn’t it?
When Jim Davies’ article came out, Ben Afia, one of the people quoted in the piece (then in charge of tone of voice for Boots), picked up the phone to everyone Jim had interviewed for it. He suggested they get together to follow up on the idea of a writers’ collective.
So eight writers for business or writers in businesses, John Simmons, Martin Hennessey, Margaret Oscar, Ben Afia, Jim Davies, Tim Rich, Tom Lynham and Simon Caulkin, all got together for a coffee and a bun (we made up the cinnamon part). It turned out that they all agreed on the importance of writing in everyday use and felt that it was undervalued in the world. They had endless discussions in free spaces at places like the British Museum and the Royal Academy.
Jim explains: “First of all it was just a very casual cup of coffee to discuss the state of the nation. But then we thought we should launch as a group and see if we could generate any wider interest. We thought maybe we could get 26 members and it would be nice if everyone had their own letter assigned to them.” Nice idea about the 26 members and the letters, Jim, but it was destined to be bigger than that.
“After that first meeting, everyone wanted to meet again and the idea of forming a group came,” adds writer and communications consultant, Tim Rich: “What kind of a group we wanted it to be emerged over the next few meetings.”
Chairman of the Board, Martin Clarkson, who was not a founder but came along a short while later, explains the philosophy behind it: “I think the founders had running inside their souls a frustration which gave rise to the birth of the idea, a real belief in how much better things could be, a vulnerability and a loneliness that there was no one fulfilling that role, and all those together as a recipe created what for them was the principle of having 26.
“You see, when they first began, we lived in a world where advertising agencies would walk into a client with only pictures and on the bottom would be a Post-it note saying, ‘Words to follow’. The founders felt there was this real lack of respect for wordsmiths. Slowly, over the next few years, businesses began to understand that the words and the writing can be as much a part of their personality as their brand and their logo.”
Clearly, the founders all got along pretty darn well too or most of them wouldn’t still be 26ing together today. If you’ve enjoyed 26’s birth, why not put on your smart shoes and head over to Name, where the new baby gets christened?
“It’s important to keep new blood coming through the system all the time,” explains founder John Simmons. The 26 Board now looks very different from how it did in the early days. “Originally, it was just the seven people who set it up who came together. We gradually added on a person here and there – Martin Clarkson, Martin Lee.”
“In recent years we’ve accelerated that,” John continues. “We’re clearer in our own minds that there are two Boards going on. One never meets: it’s a Board of directors that’s purely a legal thing and once a year we sign off on the annual accounts. Then there’s the management Board, which has become a great way to infuse new blood into the organisation. New Board members are people who have shown their enthusiasm, such as Andy Hayes, Sarah Farley or Alastair Creamer, who’s curated Wordstock. There are a lot of people who are very active in the organisation who weren’t three or four years ago.”
“The make-up of the Board goes through cycles and is self-renewing like the organisation,” adds Martin Lee. “There are new groups of people coming forward to take their place on the Board. There are some people who are really, really active and carry the brunt of a lot of things and then they drop away after a couple of years. Then there are those of us who plod along quietly and represent a bit of continuity. As the new blood comes on board, you start to hear conversations bubbling to the surface about what people want to achieve, what they’re here to do, which are the natural questions that a new group will ask themselves.”
The newest Board member, commercial writer Sarah Farley, is excited about her role, especially having never been on a Board before. “I respect people for their experience and position but I’m not intimidated by it,” she says. “I’m happy to be the person who asks the stupid question and I don’t mind rolling my sleeves up.” That’s good because there’s a lot of sleeve rolling up and glove putting on to be done. Just ask Andy ‘Marigold’ Hayes or head over to Knife.
“Around 2004, about a year after I joined,” says Board member, Martin Lee, “John Simmons said to me, ‘We’ve got more members than we thought – originally we expected 26 people and we’d allocate each one a letter of the alphabet – and we’ve now got to a point of doing surprisingly well. We’ve got around 150 members and there’s this whole weight of expectation about what 26 could achieve without us having worked out what it stands for. So would you be prepared to facilitate a workshop to help us enshrine what the brand of 26 is all about and its sense of purpose?’”
As part of his day job, Martin helps organisations work out their brand essences. “As a result, we then had a three-to-four-hour session somewhere near London Bridge with the founders, who were all at that point actively involved,” Martin explains. “I helped them to get to the statement of purpose: “26 is here to inspire a greater love of words, in business and in life”.
“They seemed very happy with it and it’s provided a sort of steer for all the years that have followed. I think what they liked about it on the day was that it gave direction but not a straightjacket. It gave a nod to the fact that there’s business DNA to 26 but also that 26 is all about the fact that life informs business and business informs life, and so should the words we use. That’s the central tenet. The statement is a semi-porous membrane for us that connects the two of these.”
Martin adds: “What interests me about this expression and the wording of it and the way it lives within the organisation is that we worked out what 26 stood for very early on. Although no one walks around talking about it, it’s an invisible stamp that hangs over the activities. And it’s a very permissive kind of line: it’s got the word ‘inspiring’ that everyone likes and the connection between business and life that everyone likes.”
Other organisations have an elaborate statement and vision but 26 never felt the need to have more than one sentence. “I like the economy of it,” Martin continues. “There’s a certain freedom there. When it’s operating at its best, members have a freedom to bring ideas forward and these are judged by the simple measurement: ‘Is this in the spirit of inspiring a greater love of words?’ Any member of 26 can propose or run a project at any time.
“By and large, the ideas people tend to bring forward do do that. All the time I’ve been on the Board, I don’t remember an occasion where a project or idea been turned down or rejected. That shows most members’ almost intuitive sense of what 26 is about.”
In its first 10 years, 26 has set itself and its members numerous tough and ultimately enjoyable challenges. The glorious thing is that people rise to them. As we’ll go on to say, you don’t have to jump through any fiery hoops to become a member. And there’s rarely much of a test to get involved in a project other than sticking your hand up and going, ‘Me, me, pick me!’ and to write a paragraph or two to prove your passion. It’s assumed that if you’re willing to give it a go, you can do it. Even if you don’t think you can. All this can take a lot of gumption though.
Chairman Martin Clarkson endorses this: “I love the way it stretches people into areas and situations that aren’t all that comfortable for them, but 99% of people put in that situation rise to the challenge and produce something good that they feel satisfied with. They develop a confidence and enjoyment that’s lasting and, to some extent, life changing.”
Here’s Sarah Farley, who joined in 2010, talking about getting involved in the 2012 project 26 Miles: “I found it terrifying: you put your name down and then you’ve got to bloody write something. I decided to write some fiction, which was quite light-hearted and different from everyone else’s – I thought I should have been more serious. I really found it terrifying and worried about the whole thing because there were so many incredible writers and I’m just me. I felt a bit intimidated.” You did marvellously, Sarah, as did everyone else: gold stars all round.
Keep reading to find out some of the curious and cantankerous challenges 26 has set itself over the years, or jump straight to the timeline at the end to see them all (or as many as we can remember).
At Wordstock on 9 November 2013, as part of 26’s tenth birthday celebrations, the very next project was announced. Called 26 Characters (coincidentally, the same as 26’s legal name), this is to takes place in April 2014 at the new Oxford Story Museum. The Museum fielded an extraordinary number of the country’s most wonderful children’s writers, who have each picked their favourite childhood character, dressed up as that character and been photographed in costume. Each 26er is being paired with a writer and a portrait to write a sestude about it, along with a blog piece about their own favourite childhood character.
For many of the more projects, 26 asks its writers to write ‘creation stories’ about what they have written. These focus on the gestation period of a piece: how it came about, what process was involved. We like the story behind the story as well as the story itself.
One of the lovely things about 26 is not just meeting other people but collaborating with them: “In our day jobs we’re slogging through an alarming number of words and that’s a very solitary activity,” says John Simmons. “To be able to engage other people around us and share is wonderful. It’s the sheer camaraderie. It’s good to join in and know other people are working with us to achieve a certain objective.”
26 partners with all sorts of organisations to run, host and sponsor projects. Then there are all the individual project collaborations where writers are initially paired up with an artist working in a different art form and who they’ve never met before. Working truly collaboratively is an art in itself.
Tim Rich collaborated with a stone lettering artist for the tenth anniversary project, 26 Words: “My day job often involves doing rather serious work for very large organisations, so it’s refreshing to take on a small, very creative project. I have my own creative projects too; the difference with the 26 projects is that they often involve working closely with others, they usually have a very precise format – which brings in what John Simmons refers to as the ‘liberation of constraints’ – and they have tight deadlines.”
After the words to be used for the 26 Words project had been chosen, “the collaborative and creative process involved a lot of head scratching and a lot of hours,” says Mark Noad, who was involved in and organised the same project: “The vast majority of people found the process stimulating and challenging – it really pushes people. The main challenge is just to get on the same wavelength. Collaboration is about freeing people up from their individual skills and getting them to think together. Where that works it’s very productive and both parties end up with something they didn’t think they’d get at the start. For me it’s the thinking process part I find the most rewarding when followed through. The collaborative basis and imposition of a strange word affects the creative process. Some of the works have been quite experimental.”
“26 is all about collaboration,” sums up Tim. “As writers it’s easy to spend a lot of time in our own heads. 26 is the social antidote to that isolation.It’s about meeting other people who love words, and perhaps working with someone you don’t know. The ideas behind the projects are often imaginative and surprising. I had no idea I’d ever get to work with a stone lettering artist to create a monument to a word I’d never heard of before.”
“What 26 has given me more than anything is permission to be a writer,” says Board member, Ezri Carlebach. “I always wanted to be a writer but I felt that it wasn’t a suitable profession or one that I could sustain a family and a mortgage on. I went into publishing and subsequently corporate communications.
“26 made me feel that the thing I most wanted to do I could do in a meaningful context. The first project I took part in was The Bard & Co., the book about the impact of Shakespeare’s work on modern business communications. I wrote a chapter and it was massively exciting – I still regard it as one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done.”
Martin Lee has a not dissimilar story: “I’ve significantly increased my confidence in my own writing,” he says. “When I first joined 26 I wouldn’t have seen myself as being in the same category as some of the copywriters because I’m not a technical member and I don’t do a lot of writing in my day job. But as the projects have gone by and I’ve got more involved, some of the things people have been kind enough to say have increased my sense that I can write and it’s given me huge pleasure to get better at it.”
Design has been central to a lot of what 26 has done over the years, which is very unusual for a writing organisation. Part of the appeal of 26 products – its books and exhibitions – is that, in addition to the quality of the writing, they are very stylish. This has the added bonus of helping to draw in an audience. Several of the founders came from an advertising agency and/or creative industries background, where they’d been steeped in design. The organisation’s launch took place at the London Design Festival, and 26 held events and exhibitions as part of the festival for a few years afterwards.
Although when 26 started, design reigned supreme and words were relegated, the organisation has honoured the symbiotic relationship between the two. Designers have as a result been attracted to join as members, and 26 has carried out a host of projects that are genuine creative collaborations between its writers and other art forms and artists.
How do you define the indefinable? By having a go. In alphabetical order then, the following adjectives spring to mind to describe 26’s spirit: ambitious, brave, collaborative, friendly, hard-working, inclusive, indomitable, plucky, stylish, talented. (That’s enough or they’ll get big-headed – ed.)
When she first joined, historical novelist, Sara Sheridan, was bowled over by the organisation’s collegiate feel: “I liked it the minute I joined. Normally, even between different kinds of novelists things can become a bit combative. With 26 I thought, ‘This is fantastic – you can write whatever you like and you’re just another writer’. The thing that really impressed me was the way that 26 encourages, actually demands in some ways, that writers from different disciplines come together. It really levels the playing field. So you might get someone who’s a poet and someone who’s a copywriter and someone who’s a novelist all in the same room. You can write whatever you want and talk to other writers who are simply interested in language and words. There’s no other organisation I could find that was doing that.”
“26 continues to be driven by the ethos of: ‘I’ve got a good idea, why don’t we do X, Y and Z and then, if enough people agree, we do it,” explains Board member Ezri Carlebach. “Finding something and using it to make a really creative and worthwhile activity sums up the organisation for me: 26 has a found quality. Marcel Duchamp talked about objects trouvés, the famous one being the urinal he turned upside down and then signed, which became an icon of modernist art. There’s a connection with the 26 project, Throwaway Lines, which was about finding scraps of handwritten notes and turning these into a project. 26 is about people seeing something and saying, ‘Why don’t we do this?’
“This doesn’t suggest a lack of professionalism or vigour because 26ers are all very serious about writing for all the different reasons they write,” Ezri continues. “Instead, it shows an approach to life and writing in life that I think is quite distinctive.”
To sum up then, if 26 were an animal it would be a cross between a gecko, a meerkat and a cheetah. Which reminds us, a group of meerkats is known as a mob, gang or clan. Now, that might be a better way to describe a bunch of 26 editors – or even members.
If you’re interested, there’s a section loosely linked to team-building questions such as, ‘If your business were an animal, what animal would it be?’ It’s called Awaydays.
One thing that 26 has always done is run excellent one-off events. In recent years, projects have probably overtaken events but events are where 26 started. In fact, following the launch, 26’s second, third and fourth events were all, well, events. And not just any old events. These were all sell-outs that each attracted around 100 enthusiastic writers and related folk.
The second, Arcanely Broadcasting Cosmetics, supported by brand consultancy, Interbrand, featured John Mitchinson from the QI television programme and 26’s Sarah McCartney, then chief writer for Lush, who talked about different approaches to business writing. The third was a panel event, Words on Advertising, supported by Birds Eye Wall’s, and this took place at Unilever House. Gerry Moira, Chairman at communications network, Publicis, 26’s Will Awdry, Creative Director at worldwide advertising agency, DDB, and radio advertising writer, Paul Burke, were the speakers.
26’s fourth event was called Great Brand Stories. It featured authors John Simmons, Mark Griffiths and Andy Milligan talking about the brands Starbucks, Guinness and David Beckham and was supported by… you guessed it, Starbucks, Guinness and Victoria… No, silly: Cyan Books. Back then, 26 had a special relationship with Cyan (Cyan and Marshall Cavendish were sponsoring us).
Over the years, there have been numerous special, one-off events. When members were asked to pick their highlights from 26’s first decade, many plumped for heart-warming memories of a specific event or two. Here’s designer Mark Noad, dipping back into his childhood: “If I were to pick one thing that I wouldn’t have got to experience if it weren’t for 26, I’d say the talk by Peter Firmin, the guy who created the Clangers and Bagpuss. It was just a pleasure to hear him talk. He brought the original Clangers and Bagpuss along. It was a nostalgia fest, which really hit the spot with my childhood. It was a lovely, really entertaining talk and was held in a really unusual place, the headquarters of Skype in London, a very contemporary setting.”
Founder Tim Rich mentioned the Interbrand talk in 2003, describing it as “a really important and exciting moment because you looked around the room and saw 200 people who wanted to stretch their thinking about language and business”. Management Board member, Andy Hayes, cited one of John Simmons’ events, a reading and question and answer session in a lecture room at the Globe Theatre in 2009 based on his book, 26 Ways of Looking at a Blackberry.
Founder Jim Davies says, “The Simon Armitage poetry reading was amazing and only about 30 people turned up in a small room at Faber and Faber – it wasn’t even much of a room; it was yellow with hard school-style chairs. It was just so intense, you really got pulled in. It was one guy with his book just reading and it was really intimate and a really, really good evening.”
And then of course, there was the Howard Jacobson event just after he’d won the Booker. But that’s another story – take a look at Luck to learn the tale.
The future’s an unknown country. “I think 26 could be something quite different in two years’ time,” says founder Tim Rich. “It’s dependent on who’s got the time, motivation and ideas to take it in new directions. If someone’s doing something interesting they’ll take a lot of members with them. There’s a continual process of renewal. The most exciting thing about 26 is ‘What’s the new project going to be?’ It could go in any direction.”
26 Chairman, Martin Clarkson, believes there’s a long way to go yet: “26’s ambition is a long, long way from fruition because to move a whole business into the community and instil a better understanding of writing is longer than probably one generation of 26. But I really believe that after their first period, as they hit their anniversary, the ripples in the pond will have moved much wider than that founding group, much wider than they realise through the results of the dozen publications, the six or seven exhibitions, the four or five Design Week activities. All of those activities over 10 years have spread those ripples very wide. But my eyes are on what they’ve done to the appreciation of the audience more than necessarily what they’ve done in the hands of the writers.”
26’s finances have always been extremely simple. Each member has always paid an annual subscription of £26 and that’s been the organisation’s sole income. “Our finances are still on a shoe string,” says John Simmons without lament. “Although we’ve made a number of half-hearted attempts to get sponsorship, we’ve never really had any proper money. It’s a minor miracle when you think of the things we’ve done on the tiny membership money. For projects, we’ve generally relied on the goodwill of partners to supply venues and other materials.”
26 Chairman Martin Clarkson concurs: “It’s been a hand to mouth operation. 26 is set up to cover its costs and it’s rarely enjoyed the arts and business support you’d think it would have. In the main, it’s enjoyed the benefits of subscriptions and self-financing in all its projects and conferences. But I know from past meetings that we could be led by housekeeping. Now it’s much more a case of we believe and the finances become available.”
“In the early years, it was often a struggle to put things on and get them up and running,” says Jim Davies. A section entitled ‘by hook or by crook’ or even ‘begging’ would not have been out of place in this history. For instance, for a talk by multi-award-winning poet, Simon Armitage, in 2005, Jim Davies secured £300 from a client towards the fee that Simon had requested of £500. “It was always trying to scrape money together to do these things until we’d got enough membership and momentum,” he adds.
Until recently, Tom Lynham, founder and international wordstormer, always managed 26’s purse strings and did a fantastic job year on year. “Until 2012, Tom always looked after the money; he’s been our head of finances, as it were,” says Jim. “It’s really not his thing at all and yet he manfully stuck to this role for eight years.” Three cheers for Tom.
These days, 26 member Tom Wilcox’s Counterculture, an organisation that helps ‘cultural, creative and third sector organisations to plan, manage and thrive’, manages 26’s finances, so it’s all a little more organised. “I think it’s important that Counterculture is now involved,” adds Tim Rich. “That’s brought professionalism to the running of 26.”
When asked to name their highlights of the first 10 years, many 26ers (a slip of the pen there revealed 276, the London bus route we used to catch between Stoke Newington and Newham, but we digress…) cite the wonderful friends they’ve made. In fact, good friends are right at the top of the list.
A quick dip into the thesaurus for ‘friendship’ reveals: relationship, close relationship, attachment, mutual attachment, association, bond, tie, link, union. Also amity, camaraderie, comradeship, companionship, fellowship, fellow feeling, closeness, affinity, rapport, understanding, harmony, unity, intimacy, mutual affection.
26 has fostered and continues to build all these. It’s even stretched to friendship’s romantic cousin, love, when popular science writer and star of Wordstock 2012, David Bodanis, and 26 member, Claire Falcon, married in July 2013 after having met first at Wordstock 2012 and then at the launch of the Throwaway Lines project.
Here are a few of the nice things members have said about meeting people and making new friends: “My experience of being in 26 has got better and better and I’m fonder of it after a decade than I was at the beginning,” enthuses Martin Lee. “I think it’s possibly because the friendships side may matter more, feel more important and abiding. I feel that as long as 26 endures, so will those friendships.”
“For me, a lot of it has been about friendships and particularly early on it was a very close-knit group of people,” says Jim Davies. “You felt quite cut off and then suddenly you had this little support group, which I think was very important. If you had an issue with, say, not getting paid or somebody throwing your words out for no particular reason, there was somebody on the other end of the phone. You could say, ‘Have you ever been in this situation before?”
26’s newsletter editor, Elen Lewis, sings from a similar hymn sheet: “I’ve made lots of interesting friends through 26 and got to know people I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise – people of different ages and backgrounds, who live in different places. It’s surprising how similar we all are because we share an interest in words and love writing. That’s been the most valuable thing for me. It’s brought together eclectic people who’ve become friends, mentors and people I can turn to for advice. We’ve got a lot more in common than we think. We look and sound different but we’re all quite similar.”
“At the end of the day, the relationships are the best thing about it,” adds Quietroom client services director, Andy Hayes. “It’s just brilliant being part of that community. I went to a 26 event the other day, and there were four, five, six people I knew really well that I didn’t know before. It boils down to the creativity and the camaraderie.”
26 was founded on members giving freely of their time: it had to be; as we’ve seen, there was precious little in the coffers and no more give in the purse strings. Giving one’s time voluntarily has been a guiding principle right through the organisation’s history and still is so today. There’s been no rotational system, no telling members ‘It’s your turn now to do your bit’. People have just put their hands up when it’s felt right and got stuck in.
Help has been required over the years from the little things like putting out tables and chairs for talks in the early days, right through to organising major activities like the projects and whole-day events. As Ezri Carlebach says of 26’s annual festival of writing, Wordstock, which began in 2011: “It was all done in our spare time. It was built on that fund of goodwill 26 has developed in its history, plus some creative thinking to get round logistical problems”. Or as management Board member, Andy Hayes, says of the project he engendered, Throwaway Lines, “People always give their time for free. There’s lots of proofing stuff at 11.30pm on a Sunday night, giving up your lunch hours and not seeing your wife and kids.” (While we’re here, we should mention that Elise Valmorbida co-edited Andy’s project, curated the exhibition and coined the term ‘litterature’ for stories created from… you guessed it – litter.)
Early on, when the founders wanted more people to volunteer, they learnt that emailing everyone through the newsletter to ask for help with, say, booking the venue for an event or sorting the drinks, was met with the virtual equivalent of zombie-like stares. “If you sent out a blanket invitation, you’d get virtually no response,” says Jim Davies. “But if you said, ‘Oh, so and so might be great at doing that’ and asked them directly, they’d feel good about themselves and might actually get involved. You had to be politic about it and strategic. People like to be asked, don’t they?”
26ers have organised projects for free. “We’ve been very lucky,” says John Simmons. “I think it shows there’s so much enjoyment to be got from the creativity that goes with originating a project and liaising with 26 writers – to see the entries come in and be part of how you get them into the wider world and celebrate them. If you were doing that in the commercial world, you’d expect to be paid several thousand pounds for it. Here you’re doing it for nothing except the gratitude of your colleagues.”
Historically, members have also always done the creative part of all the projects voluntarily but then that’s the fun part. They have the creative challenge, the joy (and tribulations) of collaboration, the camaraderie and a knees-up down the pub at the end.
As we’ve seen, 26 has grown and is now a bonny 10-year-old. In terms of sheer numbers, it’s increased from eight founders to around 400 members.
Sometimes it’s experienced growth spurts, at other times, that expansion has plateaued. 26 has now got a lot more X chromosomes than when it started off, but it still has very little flab. Or cellulite. But let’s not get sexist or competitive about this, as 26 doesn’t do ‘ists’ or exclusions.
Board member Martin Lee has the first and last word on the topic of Growth and it might surprise you: “Nobody has any interest in 26 growing. I’ve never been part of a conversation, ‘How big do we want to get?’ I don’t sense any curiosity about growth. We do get told about membership at Board meetings but growth isn’t an objective in itself. I think that 26 is one of those entities that will exist so long as it has value to members. If it stops having value, it should cease to exist. It has to be self-perpetuating through the energy of its people.”
Revolution is fine then but we draw the line at head chopping – unless in the name of art.
Following the 26 Letters project, in 2004, the London Design Festival asked 26 to come up with another collaborative project for its 2005 festival. This time, 26 took the iconic Circle line as its subject. This is the London underground line that runs from Hammersmith to Edgware Road then does a grand loop right around central London coming back to Edgware Road. The full underground circle was completed in 1884.
Why on earth or beneath the sod pick this subject? 26 decided it was a fantastic starting point for telling stories about London because the Circle line takes in the centre of the city, along with very diverse areas of London – leafy, wealthy Sloane Square, for instance, and Kings Cross St Pancras (back in 2005, the regenerated Kings Cross was nought but a Neighbourhood Framework document).
Each writer in the project – which became the book published by Cyan called From Here to Here – was ‘given’ a station and asked to write a chapter in any genre based on their station or the area around it. The Times‘ Kate Saunders said that it added up to “an energetic celebration of my maddening, traffic-clogged, sooty, beloved city”. On the presses on July 7, the day of the London Tube bombings, it was dedicated to the victims of the attacks and to London itself.
26’s project partners were London Underground and the London College of Communication based in Elephant and Castle, so each station wasn’t just given a writer but a whole team, including staff from the station and students from the college. Their joint task was to produce an artwork to be part of an exhibition to take place during the Festival. So From Here to Here had three outcomes: a book, posters displayed at each Circle line station (with a complete collection of posters in a walkway at Embankment) and an exhibition at the London College of Communication. It was 26’s most ambitious project to date.
“I think it’s an inclusive organisation,” says John Simmons, shuddering at feeling compelled to use the clichéd phrase. “I’ve come across other writing organisations which are exclusive and people are concerned to keep things to an elite core. 26 generally is not like that. It’s welcoming of everyone. The only test is, ‘Can you pay £26?’ and that’s it. And we just ask people to embrace our cause, which is improving writing in life and work.”
Fellow founder, Tim Rich, explains why they decided to go down this route: “Early on it would have been very easy for 26 to have become a rather formal body that sets standards. You know the sort of thing – the sort of bureaucratic professional body where you have to have an interview and meet set criteria before you can become a member. That felt rigid and closed. The spirit of 26 is really the spirit of language: it’s open-ended and ever-changing. We thought ‘let’s invite all comers and see where we go’.”
That has enabled members to do things in the broad spirit of the group rather than as a tightly run prescriptive organisation. “That spirit of being open to people coming to the organisation to get things done is why 26 still has life,” Tim adds. “If it had been a closed organisation, it would have been a dry, technical thing limited in its appeal.”
We ditched ‘Jaunty’, ‘Jocular’, ‘Judicious’ and ‘Joust’ (Ezri Carlebach’s fast-paced ‘pecha kucha’ nights involve a joust, as 26ers compete to give the best speedy presentation) in favour of a capital noun. Since we’ve got a deadline to meet, as well as a day job and a novel we’re penning in the wee smalls, we decided to lop this section out of a longer version of Luck and drop it in here instead – that’s what editing’s all about.
So here’s a story of one of 26’s near miracles: “Howard Jacobson was great [at our Annual Speech],” recalls Jim Davies. “That was in 2010 just after he won the Booker prize but we had him booked months before and he couldn’t get out of it. I think it was a week or two after it was announced he’d won it and when he came he was pretty exhausted because he’d done this big round of publicity afterwards. And I don’t think he’d prepared anything, so he asked for it to be a question and answer session. Martin Clarkson did the Q&A. Martin is just an amazing raconteur and when he chairs Board meetings it’s always great fun and he sums up absolutely brilliantly. So the evening was really, really entertaining and funny and informative.”
It was a big success. We’ve got our antennae out (all 26 of them) for the next Booker victor. (If someone could kindly arrange for it to be a 26 member, we could keep 25 of them available for projects. Thank you very much.)
This section originally had three possible titles: Bucket, Hat and Dip (as in lucky). And it’s only Knife because 26 has never had a suitable sword about its person (no sniggering: this is a family history). Anyway, these objects have been used democratically and fairly to pair things and people together for projects. It’s always been a highly democratic organisation. (More like eccentric, we hear you muttering.)
Hard to believe it but 26 has never had an official hat, bucket or knife, only amateur, common or garden props. Since time immemorial (2003), project organisers have scribbled the names of 26 members who have volunteered for projects onto little slips of paper, put those into a bucket or hat and pulled names out at random to match them with objects or people – depending on the project. In recent years, people have started getting a little bit silly with this whole thing. Andy Hayes, the second tallest 26 member (as we go to print), infamously used a pink bucket and yellow Marigold gloves to pick volunteers for his Throwaway Lines project in 2012.
And the knife/sword? Ah yes. That has a very smart, classical origin and involves a technique that one of the founders, John Simmons, uses on his Dark Angels’ creative writing in business courses. He explains: “You insert a knife into a book and come up with a word where the tip of the knife is pointing at. It comes from Virgil’s prophecy, Sors Virgiliana. In Roman times, soothsayers had a number of different ways of telling people’s fortunes and the future and one was to insert a knife into the rolled up scrolls of Virgil’s Aeneid.” Wikipedia describes these methods as ‘divination by bibliomancy.’ There you go. You learn something new every day as a member of 26.
This knife-in-the-book technique was used for the 2013 26 Words project. Mark Noad, graphic designer, Chairman of the Letter Exchange and 26er, puts it this way: “We had a big, two-volume dictionary and each letter was separated out by the people organising it. The knife went in and where the tip rested it was whatever word it was on. I was a little nervous beforehand – what if we got ‘if’, ‘can’ or ‘and’ words? Fortunately, that didn’t happen. I’ve been working on ‘hearse’…” The rest, as they say, is hearse-tory.
26 was launched at the Design Council during the inaugural London Design Festival (now one of the world’s most important annual design events) on 26 September 2003. The event was supported by Penguin Books and Innocent Drinks. 26’s John Simmons was in touch with his old boss from design agency, Newell and Sorrell, John Sorrell, who was chairman of the Design Council and the chap behind the London Design Festival. (Yes, it’s a bit confusing with all the Johns and surnames beginning with ‘S’ but bear with us.)
Seven of the founders persuaded 150 writers, designers and friends to join them for the evening. All seven took it in turns to make a short speech about the way in which words can bring another dimension to design and business with the aim of recruiting new members. In his talk, John (Simmons) described the fledgling organisation thus. You’ll probably recognise it – it’s got the same feel today:
“26 is a not-for-profit association. We’re not a company selling you our services so we can all make money and grow rich. 26 is for people like you – for professional writers, language specialists and people in companies who believe in the power of words. 26 came about because we all felt isolated and unrepresented in the business world, in the creative community. So the main aim of 26 is to raise the profile of writing in business and to demonstrate the contribution it can make to working life. Because there is no one out there doing that job and it needs to be done. But in creating 26 to do that job, we also create something invaluable for writers and for anyone who becomes part of 26. We create an extraordinary network of people who can then provide support, information and ideas for each other. If writers have, by tradition, been stuck behind closed doors working in isolation, here’s a way to break out of that isolation and come together for mutual benefit.”
It clearly worked because by the end of the evening, 26 had a whopping 60 or so members. We’re afraid that the actual number is lost in the mists of time, although somewhere on our travels we’re sure someone mentioned the figure of 76 (although 62 would be neater being 26 reversed). Let’s stick with 76 since we were always much better at English than Maths. This is the official 26 history and what the chronicler says goes.
The launch itself is one of John’s top highlights from the whole decade: “It was such a big thing; we really didn’t know if it was going to succeed or not. There were seven of us. We each invited a large number of our friends from the creative industries and thought, ‘They’ll come because they’re mates’. We did it at the Design Council. We hoped we might recruit 26 members to whom we could assign a letter of the alphabet. By the end 60 or so had signed up. It must have been getting on for 100. It took us by surprise and it just carried on like that.” There’s that 26 maths blindness again.
At this early stage, some of the things planned, apart from growing membership, and which John’s speech spanned on the evening included an e-newsletter, evening meetings with authors from Penguin Books and an internet forum. And “a 26 book of letters” which would have 26 chapters, one on each letter of the alphabet, each written by a member of 26.
During its first 10 years, 26 has learnt how to pull rabbits out of hats. It’s also learnt a few lessons about how to do things and how not. Here are the top three:
1. Aim high and don’t be deterred by others’ tendency to pigeonhole you into genres. Writers are flexible creatures, who love fresh challenges and 26 has provided plenty of those.
2. Be open and optimistic. There’s a joy in writing as an activity that can be squeezed out by factions and infighting. 26 has always been determined to welcome people in not keep them out, and has learnt more and everyone has enjoyed themselves more as a result.
3. Keep moving forward. 26 always has several projects on the go – it’s got hungry writers to feed with creative projects. Don’t wait for one to finish before beginning the next.
Once it was clear that many more people wanted to join 26 than 26, that rather scuppered the idea of a clutch of mortals getting one letter apiece in a sort of land-grab of the English (Latin) alphabet. That was a tad selfish anyway, if you think about it. It’s a much nicer state of affairs that all 26ers and everyone who writes – and pretty well everyone has to compose emails these days or feed their Facebook page? – is able to use the letters ad infinitum.
26’s very first project, 26 Letters, was clearly based on the one letter apiece idea, as it involved randomly pairing 26 business writers with 26 graphic designers who didn’t know each other, and then randomly pairing each random pair with one letter of the alphabet. Phew. The pairs were then tasked with creating a collaborative poster that celebrated, explored or subverted the character of their letter. The results were extraordinary.
In 2004, a 26 Letters: Illuminating the Alphabet exhibition was launched at the British Library. It formed a central part of the London Design Festival that year. The same year, a handsome hardback book by the same name was brought out by Cyan Books, the publisher with whom 26 had a partnership for a few years.
Since the year dot, 26 has been a bit of a jammy so and so. Many events, projects and partnerships have emerged and seemingly fallen into place lickety-split. But founders and others have long used E. M. Forster’s principle, ‘Only connect’.
As you’ll see from the different projects discussed in this history and the timeline at the end, 26 members have roved, wheedled and chatted, wearing out holes in their contacts books as they’ve done so. They have seized the opportunities that have arisen, sealing deals on the hoof and in the air. But sometimes, just sometimes, there’s been a lot of luck. Some in the organisation even refer to instances of exceptional luck as ‘miracles’.
Like many 26 projects and events and like the very first project, 26 Letters, the Bard & Co. project transpired in a surprising, haphazard and fortuitous way. John Simmons explains: “The project came about because I knew the Education Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Patrick Spottiswoode. I was sitting in his office. 26 had been going for three years at this point and I had a fixation with the number 26 and we were talking about that. I saw a little sparkle come into his eyes. He came back with a copy of Shakespeare’s first folio edition, which included the list of Shakespeare’s company. I instinctively knew there had been 26 members of Shakespeare’s company.” But then we all knew that from school from our O Level – ahem, GCSE – English and ourRiverside Shakespeare, didn’t we?
This sort of meaningful coincidence that Jung termed synchronicity is not a one-off. It’s 26’s lifeblood.
26’s founders initially expected membership to reach the dizzying heights of the mid 20s and stay there. Yet by the end of its launch, the founders’ clarion call had swollen the ranks to 76 – see Launch.
Proper, all-present-and-correct stats have been kept since 2007 by 26’s administrator Rachel Marshall – until Rachel came along, 26 was better at creative writing and turned its nose up at ‘uncreative’ filing. Between the launch and 2007, the number of members had risen to 256. Numbers have continued to grow steadily ever since, surpassing the 350 mark in our tenth anniversary year.
As the membership has increased, it’s diversified too. 26ers are no longer solely or even predominantly business writers, although copywriting is still at its core. 26 welcomes writers of all stripes and those who simply love words. As well as tone of voice and branding experts, members work as corporate communicators, journalists, poets, screenwriters, novelists, lecturers and book editors. There’s a strong graphic streak too and 26 also has a few visual artists and designers on board. Writing consultancies Afia, Quietroom and The Writer have their own memberships.
The key thing to remember is there’s no test to get in. You don’t have to have published a certain number of books – or any at all. You just have to be able and willing to pay the subs. It helps if you have a smile on your face from time to time and choose your sleeves for the ease with which they can be rolled up.
At the time of going to press after 26’s tenth anniversary celebrations, 169 members have membership pages on the 26 website telling others what they do. A quick scroll through these reveals one member proud to be born on the 26th (Paul Amlani-Hatcher) and another excited about living along the 26 bus route (Morag Edwards). We have our own David Cameron. A few are aged 26.
Many report dabbling in other wordish flora and fauna when they’re not doing the sort of writing they do during in the day. You’d think that might get boring but they remain an impassioned lot. And there’s still only one 26 writer, who also makes a living as a yoga teacher and perfumer (Sarah McCartney) and who believes that standing on your head is good for the flow of ideas.
Nobody’s perfect but 26 members deserve a pat on the back for making things happen with gallons of creative ingenuity, bloody hard work, a good contacts book, a piece of string, much courage and a handful of pocket change: “I think we’ve succeeded with every project, and people have always turned up to our events,” says Chairman, Martin Clarkson. How long is the 26 string, you may wonder? However long it is, 26 has always managed to stretch it further. It’s magic string, you see.
There’s been the occasional cock-up. Let’s call them bizarre and beautiful blunders, which have, of course, been seamlessly corrected. To entertain you, here are two of the finest and most amusing, which make wonderful tales in themselves.
The first is called 1926: Ezri Carlebach went to a 26 event for budding novelists and book writers, which was held at the offices of Faber and Faber in Bloomsbury, London. Ezri says: “You come to Faber and take the lift to the top floor to the conference room. Someone rushed in to the lift and said, “I’m a speaker but I’m very late. We got in the lift together. He said, ‘Are you going? Can you just remind me what happened in 1926?’ I thought I could ruin this guy’s evening by telling him something about the General Strike and he could get his pitch totally wrong. He was a well-known commissioning editor but I won’t say who it was.” That’s Ezri – he’s such a gent.
The second slip up is entitled 365 Spare Yards: as originator and organiser of the 26 Miles project in 2012, Andy Hayes was busy allocating each chosen writer with one mile from the London marathon: “Because I was allocating miles to people, I said you have to go down and walk your mile, don’t just research it online. So when I’d given the miles out, everyone started going out. Then a couple of people said, ‘Hmm, I’m a bit confused here – is it this mile or that one?’ and I said, ‘No, no, it’s definitely this one’. After I got two or three people saying that I thought, ‘Hang on, something’s wrong here’, and the penny dropped. Then I looked and realised it was me going mad not them. People had invested time but I’d sent them round to the wrong part of London, albeit only a mile away. Fortunately, some people hadn’t walked their mile yet, so there were only about two or three who had to give up their mile and swap and do another one. I also forgot to invite one of the people. Luckily, we had a spare 365 yards.”
Once they’d decided to form a proper group and had decided what sort of group it would be, the founders realised they needed a name and were stumped. “It was the nightmare brief,” says Tim Rich: “We were eight writers and language people sitting looking at each other thinking, ‘It’s got to be good and interesting but how do we do it?’ We were stuck.
“The next day I was walking down my road and saw the numbers 18, 22, 24. I just thought ’26’. It connected in my mind with the letters of the alphabet but it also felt enjoyably counterintuitive for a group of writers to have a number as its name. It also felt broad enough to encourage projects and interesting ways in which the organisation might develop. I sat on it for a couple of days and did that thing we often do with a new name, going ‘I love it; no, I don’t’. Then, at the Board meeting the following week, I mentioned the name 26 and everyone smiled.”
Once the baby was named, something amorphous then started to become contained and understandable, Tim says: “Having a name began to focus people’s thoughts and give structure. Thoughts about what projects they could do started to bubble away in people’s minds.”
Jim Davies picks up the story: “Something that’s become part of 26’s DNA is the whole idea of randomness – what seem rather arbitrary constraints. It’s already implied in our name. It just seemed absolutely right; it had a surreal quality that appealed to us.” The name then suggested 26’s first ever project, 26 Letters.
For the record, we should say that 26 Characters is 26’s registered or legal name. Just in case there’s a knock at the door.
This is about organising things, not the organisation itself, and organising things is nearly always a lot of hard work. 26 has managed this in spite of itself. But it’s had to become more professional over the years and that’s involved growing pains.
“26 has been about getting together and doing something,” says Ezri Carlebach. “It’s professionalised its management in recent years. Now we have a company secretary and a web and communications person. It’s had to sharpen up to keep going and out of respect to members who’ve paid £26, who are entitled to expect a better organised organisation.”
He adds: “If 26 becomes bigger it needs to become slicker but if it’s slicker, it may lose its distinctive ethos.” We wouldn’t want that to happen, now would we? Check out Growth and Future for some interesting thoughts on what may happen next.
Partnerships have been a very effective way of giving 26 instant credibility. Early on, though, the founders had no idea that pairing up with other organisations would become so central to 26’s philosophy. That all changed when 26 Letters, 26’s first project, happened along, involving as it did a three-way partnership and exhibition at the British Library. It came about because John Simmons knew people who were setting up the London Design Festival. They discussed 26 and said, ‘Why don’t you do a project? We’ve got this venue, the British Library, and they’re looking for something to go in there. It’s also with the International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD).’ John suggested the idea of 26 Letters, which they thought sounded great. Lo and behold. The idea of partnerships and of a relationship with the visual arts have filtered through 26 ever since.
Over the years, 26 has teamed up with a wide range of organisations, including London Underground, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Cyan Books and Writers’ Centre Norwich.
It’s probably less well known that 26 undertakes a number of projects with a more serious intent, such as 26 Poems for Christmas, helping charities Teenage Cancer Trust and It’s Good 2 Give. A longstanding partnership with PEN International, the human rights organisation that promotes freedom of expression around the world, is the strongest example of this type of pairing.
“I think the association and projects with PEN International were really important because here was a very established, serious, literary organisation responding to the spirit and talent of 26 and wanting to work with us on something very important,” says founder Tim Rich.
The 26-PEN International partnership came about after one of the founders got to know Caroline McCormick, the first executive director of the organisation. Initially, 26 was involved with the Free the Word! festival of contemporary world literature, which Caroline established in London in 2008. Then, in 2009, when PEN International was coming up to the 50th anniversary of its Writers in Prison programme, Caroline asked if 26 could help mark the anniversary. PEN International had been campaigning for nearly 50 years to free writers incarcerated for penning material that governments around the world believed was subversive or dangerous.
Author and Board member, Elise Valmorbida, who also co-edited the project, came up with the idea of writing 50 stories, one for each year of the campaign. PEN selected one of its imprisoned writers for each of the 50 years. A writer from 26 was paired randomly with that writer and tasked with writing exactly 50 words about that writer and their story. The result was 50 ‘parcels of poetry, prose, meditation and agitation’ (as PEN International’s website put it), about writers including Wole Soyinka, Vaclav Havel and Salman Rushdie. The parcels were posted online, one per day throughout the 50 days leading up to the 50th anniversary and the Free the Word! festival. The form worked really well and the writers from 26 came up with some really powerful pieces.
“What 26 does really well,” explains Caroline, “is to take the professional skills that the members have and put them into a creative context. This worked really nicely for the 26 50 project because the 26 members understood better than the purely literary PEN members how to communicate the stories in a strong, direct, impactful way with an understanding of what the issues were. They re-told these seminal stories of why writers had been imprisoned and the 50 stories generated a lot of media. It was a really strong coming together of the two organisations.”
They were also a resource used by PEN International’s Head Office. Ten PEN International centres around the world used them. The writers from 26 were essentially creating a second narrative that could be retold by the organisation as a whole. Caroline explains: “One of the challenges PEN International faces is how to unify an organisation where freedom is everything. Coming up with a coherent set of narratives that people could understand and find relevant was a really amazing achievement.”
The partners followed up this success a year later with the 26 Exchanges project, which was part of the 2008 Free the Word! festival. Contemporary writers from PEN International who wrote in languages other than English were paired with writers from 26. The PEN International writer sent an email with some of their writing to the 26er, who had to scribe a piece in response. It didn’t matter if they received something in, say, a Scandinavian or African language which they couldn’t understand.
“It was a journey of cultural understanding as much as a linguistic one,” recalls Caroline, “and a beautiful experience. The idea was that the 26 members took the text from the PEN International writer and translated it. But what they really did was not try and find an exact translation. It was much more about communication and understanding, re-interpreting the piece in a different context.”
“I was paired with an obscure Peruvian writer who wrote in an Andean language and also in Spanish,” says John Simmons. “I created a poem out of it from my menu Spanish. It’s remarkable what you can achieve. I’m not saying it was a great poem but I wrote something that made some kind of sense. Ultimately the project allowed us to explore the nature of translation.”
To celebrate 26 Exchanges, the partners created an exhibition, designed by Harry Pearce of Pentagram, in a completely blacked out room of the Royal College of Engineering off the Mall as part of the London Design Festival. “Personally, I think this was one of the best things 26 has ever done,” says John. “It was an amazing experience. Your eyes had to adjust to the lack of light and words were projected round the room drawn from the 26 Exchanges project.” The piece included the PEN International writers speaking in their own language and the 26 writers speaking their interpretations of them.
“It was just a real joy to work with 26,” concludes Caroline. “PEN International is understandably a hugely complex and political organisation but working with this group of quite liberated, quite free writers who wanted to bring creativity to the table and respond in a very open way was a great partnership for us to have. Often the writers PEN International work with are bound up in very complex issues. The 26 writers came with a very simple agenda, ‘We just want to write’ and this added a lot of strength and vitality.”
Since we’re three-quarters of the way through the alphabet, we demand to know what’s at the heart of this 26 business. We’ll have a go. 26 exudes something akin to a friendly, familial feel. It embraces productive, slightly maverick writers who don’t feel they really belong anywhere else, and it feeds the maverick yearnings of otherwise more strait-laced or full-time-job-bound writers.
At number 26 everyone is as important as everyone else. Members can sit on the sidelines or throw themselves into projects and organisational activities; they can switch from one to the other from one year to the next. No one has to rise through the ranks or serve a term to become important. If you say you can do something it’s assumed that you can, and usually you go on to do it even though you generally think you can’t.
Somehow, this rather light way of being (that involves much hidden graft to get things off the ground) inspires a real affection that means many of the members are happy to muck in and do things for free. Of course, in a smaller way it can be good for their careers but that’s not at all central or in yer face. 26 is about friendship rather than networking. “You do get stuff back out of it – it’s not purely out of the goodness of your own heart,” says founder Jim Davies, who wrote the newsletter for seven years out of the goodness of his own heart. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the past 10 years in which 26 has existed, my copywriting career has gone from strength to strength.”
26 also lives on a quality (ahem) street. It appeals to people who always aim to give above and beyond even if they’re the only ones who ever know it. The projects are top notch. It appeals to writers who like being around other writers who always give more than their best; who have a generous spirit.
For some, it really is a kind of home. As observers, writers can feel like foreigners in their own backyards. There’s also a long history of writers in garrets or out on the streets – think Norwegian Knut Hamsun gnawing his own shoes. It should be noted that most of us aren’t on the streets: in one of 26’s few forays into business-like things, the Wordsworth survey, run on two occasions by Sarah McCartney, helped us learn about the price our words attract in the marketplace.
Writers need a nice warm home and a hearth, a place where they’re loved and welcomed, and where they can sit down to a warm meal of creative collaboration. Oh dear, this is sounding a bit Bronte sisters crossed with the Brothers Grimm… But it’s not a home that suits everyone. A lot of people want and need a more formal or commercial body and that’s okay because there’s plenty of room for both.
Ultimately, there’s a kind of circularity to 26. It’s about creating ripples in ponds, as Chairman Martin Clarkson said at the beginning (see Future). It moves according to the will of its members and the passion and enthusiasm of a few individuals, who change from time to time. There’s a circularity about it, which we wanted to capture in this history and which explains the – well – eccentric structure.
26’s quiddity misleads sometimes: “I always think of myself as a new boy in 26 and actually I must be one of the longest standing because I joined a good nine years ago,” says Ezri Carlebach. That’s not an uncommon feeling. Another is this. Ezri again: “I always thought that in 26 there was this whole network of people who all knew each other really well and they all knew what they were doing and there was this body of common knowledge or shared knowledge that I hadn’t accessed. And I don’t think that was true with the benefit of hindsight. “I think almost everyone feels when they meet people at 26 events that the other person has a deeper, longer connection with 26 but it’s so open and friendly and open to people’s input that that doesn’t matter.”
In the end, as Ezri realised, each 26er is the organisation – its beginning, middle and end. “I think it was founded in a curious way,” continues Ezri. “I think the people who founded it were curious in the nicest sense of the word and I think that that curiosity is a really important element in 26’s overall life. It is a home for curious writers in both senses of the word – people who want to know more and curious as in slightly strange.” As mentioned, it’s a home.
It might be a cliché but for many members, 26 does seem to refresh the parts that other writing organisations don’t reach. Here’s historical novelist, Sara Sheridan, again:
“I churn out murder mysteries that are between 75,000 and 80,000 words long and historical novels that are between 120,000 and 130,000 words, so I think in those chunks. My mind is absolutely full of stories that run to that length. So if you give me 62 words (a not uncommon brief for a 26 project – seeSestude), that to me is just so exciting because I never get to do that. When I have to do short stories for 26, which are 1,000 or 1,5000 words, again that seems like such a doddle to me because I normally have to think on this very massive scale.
“It’s really refreshing and I find I go back to other things that I’m working on with renewed vigour from having worked in that different form. I think you bring back to whatever your main strand of writing is from every different form you work in. So I find it really, really stimulating.” That sums it up nicely. Thank you, Sara.
“We had an awayday that was all about trying to find the future direction of 26,” says writer and communications consultant, Tim Rich. “I think 26 was five or six years old. It was led by Martin Lee, who did a wonderful job. It was one of those little moments where an organisation takes some time to reflect on itself to make sure it isn’t stale and to check that it’s giving members what they want.
“We spent some time thinking about our brand values. We were all well-versed in thinking about branding for clients and yet we found it tough to do it for ourselves. One of the phrases that emerged was ‘shambolically effective’. We suddenly saw ourselves in the mirror we’d created. The organisation has never been slick but we have always got things done. 26 has dreamed up and successfully produced some really complex projects. It’s successfully raised money and run itself properly. But really we’re just a bunch of writers who aren’t all that experienced at managing organisations.”
John Simmons remembers the same story thus: “Martin asked us, ‘What are the core brand values of 26?’ and the only word we could all agree on was shambolic. We’re quite proud of this shambolic value. It’s not true because to get these things done takes an awful lot of organisation.”
“One of the enduring little minor jokes in 26 is you’ll sometimes hear people say our core brand value is shambolic effectiveness,” says Martin, wrapping up. “It’s a kind of tongue-in-cheek branding reference. What the Board has consistently lacked, not entirely but collectively, is great administrative skills. So it bumbles along despite itself some of the time. And sometimes there are enormous amounts of tremendous hard work and good organisation but sometimes it takes a slightly forgiving spirit to the whole administrative thing. We’re not engineers.”
No, we’re writers. Scrolling through our list of members shows we’re more likely to be christened Will or Jane than Isambard. Onward… We’re nearly at the end, and you’re no doubt expecting a sexy plot twist or all the story threads coming together on the next interactive page.
Sestude is a 26 coinage. It’s a new form in any genre of writing, which is exactly 62 words long: 26 reversed. We submitted ‘sestude’ as a new word to the Collins English Dictionary, defining it as “a reflective study using exactly 62 words”. It’s currently ‘pending investigation’, which sounds ominous. It’s a flexible little form which can be used by almost anyone, including adults and kids.
The term was coined for the 26 Treasures project at the V&A in 2010. Writers from 26 wrote exactly 62 words each about objects in the Museum’s British Galleries. The following year, other national museums in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland adopted the form for exhibitions. In 2012 a book, 26 Treasures, was published by Unbound, a publishing organisation that uses crowd-sourcing to produce books. The world’s first ever collection of sestudes, the book contains work by more than 100 writers.
26 has been enthusiastically taking up sestudes for its projects ever since. Local schoolchildren wrote sestudes for the 2000 to 2010 decade as part of the 2012-13 26 Treasures of Childhood project at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.
26 had three Annual Speeches in 2008, 2009 and 2010, all organised by Ezri Carlebach. So we’ll let him tell the story of how this came about: “Around 2006/7, I moved from the RSA to Barclays, where I was Head of Internal Communications. At that time, Barclays hired a chap called Philip Collins to write speeches for him. Phil was a very interesting character, he didn’t really fit in and neither did I. We became friends and hung around in the canteen. He was very interested in some of the issues that I was interested in and it was clear that he was going places. He’s now a regular columnist for The Times and a very well known media commentator.
“At that point, John Simmons came to see me at Barclays just for a coffee and to have a chat, and I said I’d met this really interesting chap here called Philip Collins. John said, ‘Oh, I’ve read some of his stuff and yes, he’s really interesting’. He said, ‘I wonder if he would be willing to give a talk to 26?’
“So that started us thinking what would be an appropriate platform. We decided that just an ordinary event wasn’t enough. We would create a bigger event. We called it the 26 Annual Speech. And I approached Philip, who said he’d love to do it.
“That was in October 2008. I set the event up, helped with all the logistics, and ran the booking system on Eventbrite and it was a big success. “We did a speech the following year where we had Oona King, who spoke about language and multiculturalism. And then we did a third one, which was a real coup because after the Oona King one we were thinking who could we get for the next year.
“In one of those lovely serendipitous situations, a friend of mine had just met Howard Jacobson. He said he was really friendly and gave me his email address. So I emailed Howard Jacobson saying, ‘Hi, we’re 26, we do this Annual Speech, would you like speak in October?’ not thinking I’d even get a response. This must have been around January 2010. Howard very kindly agreed to do the talk. We held all three at the British Library in their conference centre, which is a lovely venue.
“But then the great news was that about a week before the event, Howard won the Booker prize for The Finkler Question, so it became the hottest ticket in town and was a big success.” For what Howard did next, check out Jacobson.
As we’ve discovered, 26 members don’t have to pass an entry test, they just have to cough up £26 on an annual basis and be enthusiastic, gung-ho chaps and chapesses.
This subscription has been a source of ongoing debate: after all, £26 isn’t a lot of quid. “Every year we used to have a discussion on the Board about how much the membership fee should be,” says Tim Rich. “Some of us always argued vehemently that it should never be more than £26. I think that reflects the spirit of the organisation. It’s a gesture towards the costs but really it’s just a starting point. 26 is an idea and a spirit, and it’s all about what you do with it. It’s about taking part rather than spectating or expecting the organisation to do everything for you.”
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin… A story, as you know, is an account of real or imaginary events told for entertainment, or an account of past events. You’ve probably heard the shortest story ever written, attributed to Hemingway. While lunching with friends, he bet them he could craft an entire story in six words. After they’d each coughed up $10, he scribbled on a paper napkin, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” passed it round and pocketed the dough.
Back in 2003, 26 didn’t talk much about telling tales. Stories have sneaked in. They’ve shinned down the drainpipes, crept through the cracks and felt their way along the wainscoting. But they needn’t have bothered for the door was open. Imagine that! The door was open so the poor stories all tumbled into each other and bloodied their noses.
Let’s pick them up and start from somewhere around the first threshold. (This is, as you know, the doorway you kick your main characters through and from which there’s no return unless they’ve suffered horribly.) The thing is a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end… Yes, we know that; move on please. And something has to happen. A story needs a doubt or a crisis to resolve, an element of drama, of movement.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve picked up storytelling and 26 members have picked it up,” says John Simmons. “It’s what we’re all doing, telling stories of one kind or another. It’s becoming the central issue in the writing world. It’s about putting “time, energy and thought” into the way you tell the narrative.
Don’t use the term too loosely though or you’ll arouse his ire: “It’s not enough to talk about a story when you mean a banal definition of an ordinary brand using the language of a management consultancy.” Although if you stop and add in the ‘something happened’ bit, you’ll be okay. Come back little stories, don’t run away!
Now we’ve got them sitting cross-legged on the floor, it’s time for us to tell them a story. Once upon a (recent) time, 26 did a project with D&AD, the membership organisation that educates and inspires those people who work in the creative industries and hands out pencil awards. This project was called Archive Dive. As it says on the tin – or pencil – 26ers dipped into the D&AD files, dusted off a project that had once won an award and scribed something about it.
Towards the end of 2012, D&AD again approached 26, this time to run a project about stories and storytelling. 26 über-keen writers from 26 went on to examine storytelling from every angle and their stories were featured on the D&AD website.
“The writers explored 26 different approaches to storytelling,” says John. “It was an extraordinary range of pieces. The first to go online was about the films of Jacques Tati; the last was about the Book of Exodus and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. In between, there were pieces about more expected forms of storytelling, such as folklore and mythology. And more unusual takes, such as an environmental writer writing about using graphs to tell stories on climate change.” (We embellished that one a bit when we thought he said ‘grass’.)
‘Unicorn’: that’s a wild woodland word with a pointy horn and long silvery mane. Nothing to do with 26 but then every history has to have a unicorn. It doesn’t? Well, excuse us for an errant childhood: that’s too much time spent knocking about with Noggin the Nog for you.
The other words we had in the bag for ‘U’ were ‘Umpteen’, ‘Us’ and ‘Utopia’, which all say germane things about 26. But in the end we plumped for the purity and grace of ‘Unicorn’. We like a word that can make poisoned water drinkable again and which can only be tamed by gentle, pensive maidens.
And we’re suckers for all the lovely feelings and meanings that can spill out of just two or three syllables. Isn’t it wonderful the way that words interconnect and make friends with other words to create new feelings and meanings?
Since its first project, 26 Letters, 26 has always collaborated with other art forms and artists – lettering artists, sculptors, illustrators, book designers, graphic designers, photographers. Projects have involved fascinating and sometimes tricky but genuine collaborations between writers and other artists. The resulting products (exhibitions, books) have showcased the contributions of all partners.
“From a design point of view, I find it stimulating and informative to be involved with a writing organisation,” says Chairman of Letter Exchange and self-employed graphic designer, Mark Noad. One of Mark’s bugbears is that graphic designers often place too much emphasis on making something look pretty and not enough on what it means to the person picking it up trying to understand what the message is. Also, he says, clients often commission words and graphics separately. The way Mark works is to ensure the designs he produces work from the inside out and that there is a relationship between the words and the images: “What I find most rewarding with 26 is that collaboration between the visual and the content side and making sure those are working together. 26 seems to really promote that”.
“The visual arts element goes back to our roots,” explains founder Tim Rich. “It was an article in Design Week not Business Week. 26 was launched during the London Design Festival. I think everyone involved in the early days had an interest in brands in the broadest sense and quite a few had been design journalists or designers. We started with a strong visual culture and I think that’s one reason why the organisation has been about what you can do with language in the most creative way rather that aiming to impose standards for grammatical correctness or Plain English.”
26 Words was 26’s tenth anniversary project, run in conjunction with the Letter Exchange. It worked out beautifully and synchronistically as a sister project to 26’s first ever venture, 26 Letters.
“26 Words emerged from an exhibition that the Letter Exchange did last year called Words Set Free at the Free Word Centre based in London’s Farringdon Road,” says graphic designer, Mark Noad. “One of my clients is 26’s Margaret Oscar. I gave her a copy of the catalogue and said, ‘We’re doing another one this year because the Letter Exchange is 25 years old and Margaret said, ‘That’s interesting, 26 is 10 years old – why don’t we do something together? So she put it to her committee and I put it to mine, they both thought it was a good idea and it went from there.”
The project paired writers from 26 with lettering artists from Letter Exchange to form 26 collaborative partnerships, one for each letter of the alphabet. The pairs then picked a word from the O.E.D. at random and collaborated to create visual and verbal representations of their word. This sounds simple but some of the words were exceptionally strange and this was a “completely collaborative process”, as Mark puts it. “The writer and lettering artist worked together to come up with the theme and content and apply it to the word. From there, the writer produced the text and the lettering artist did what they could with that.” The different lettering artists created two- and three-dimensional visual interpretations out of materials including paper, marble, metal, wood, stone and glass. Writers had to work within the constraints of whatever medium their paired artist works in.
“It was pretty much random how people were paired,” says Mark. “The main organisational side of it was to ensure that the pairings have worked and got on; for the most part they have – for one or two we had to swap people around. Most of the partners did not know each other. One pairing already knew each other but only realised it once they started working together.” While some members of Letter Exchange took part in 26 Letters as members of the International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD), type designer, founder member of Letter Exchange and director of the ISTD, Freda Sack, is the only one to have been involved in both projects.
By contrast, the 26 writers involved in the original 26 Letters were all invited to participate and 16 signed up. This left a nice round 10 places, one for each year of 26’s existence. Writers applied citing the year they’d joined 26 and one writer was picked for each year of 26’s history.
26 member and 26 Words participant, Sarah Farley, relives her word picking moment: “It was fantastic. I managed to actually tear the dictionary so enthusiastic was I, which is quite funny because my ‘G’ word is ‘Glance’. I think a couple of others tore pages too.”
Wordstock, now in its third year, is 26’s one-day festival at London’s Free Word Centre in Farringdon Road. With each incarnation, it’s got bigger, bolder and brighter. The headliners at the last event on 9 November 2013 were novelist and short story writer, Kate Mosse, former Scotland Yard hostage negotiator, Dick Mullender and British independent film producer, David Parfitt.
Wordstock grew out of something called the 26 Annual Speech: “26’s Annual Speech was lovely but the feeling was it was not really sustainable as it was a one-off every time,” says Ezri Carlebach, organiser of the speeches and co-originator of Wordstock. “I’d used up a huge amount of my network capital because I’d produced all three speakers – speech writer, Phillip Collins, Oona King and Howard Jacobson – and I got ill in 2010/11.
“We talked about how to expand the annual speech into a festival,” Ezri continues. “I think the name Wordstock came from a meeting with Martin Lee and Rob Self-Pierson.” In its first year, it was curated by founder and Board member, Tom Lynham, with help from Alastair Creamer, Elise Valmorbida and Martin Lee. Alastair Creamer, director of Creamer and Lloyd, curated Wordstock in 2011 and 2013. Ezri then co-organised Wordstock 2012, alongside Board members, Sarah McCartney and Elise Valmorbida. “It’s a big event to take on, a very tricky balancing act,” Ezri explains. “We were very lucky to have Alastair for 2013 because he brought in big headline speakers. He raised the bar significantly in terms of headline speakers. How can we top that in the future?”
The organisers do all the hard graft as volunteers in their spare time. The wonderful world of the internet produced Eventbrite, a fantastic booking and payment system, which helped.
“Wordstock is another one of the creative strands at the organisation’s disposal,” says Ezri. “It’s another string to the 26 bow that can be used or shelved. Wordstock has created a challenge and I’ll be very interested to see how the group feels especially after 2013’s event which also celebrated the tenth anniversary. There may be bit of soul searching. How will we go into the next decade? We did three annual speeches and we’ve done three Wordstocks. Is it time for something new?”
Please, sir/miss, can I skip this one? Yes, I know I’m normally terribly creative and I’ve got ‘potential’ but I’ve a headache, my pen’s been run over by a car and my laptop’s just been eaten by the cat. Plus, I’ve left my mate’s homework I was copying in the Xerox machine.
Hang on a minute. ‘Xerox’ is an X word, isn’t it? And ‘copy’ makes me think of lots of X’s all typed out in a row like nice big kisses. I could look up some words beginning with X in the dictionary, right? And maybe I could talk to a friend, see what they think.
It’s okay. Phew, I thought I’d got what teacher says is called writer’s block but now I can see it was only fear. It’s just that this project is more than all the other ones; it sort of squeezes my brain. Block, now that makes me think a block of wood. I wonder if there’s a word beginning with X that has something to do with that?
Ta dah! Yes, there is. Xylotypographic – I’ve looked it up though I can’t pronounce it. It means ‘of or relating to wooden type:printed from wooden type or from wood blocks’. And come to think of it, didn’t 26 do a project featuring that?
“If you’re a writer the world says ‘No’ a lot,” says historical novelist, Sara Sheridan. “Publishers say no. PRs say no. So to meet writers who say, ‘Let’s give it a try’, is really refreshing.
“26 is a bit World War II. It’s like going, we’ll climb the mountain – all we’ll need is an extra pair of socks and a banana and we’ll bomb the Germans. We’ll have a go and it usually goes very well and ends up brilliantly because everyone is very committed and interesting. It’s about that feeling of having a go. That coming together: you do that, I’ll do this. That feeling of, ‘Yes, you can’.”
So there you have it. 26 is the writing organisation that likes to say, ‘Yes’. In a somewhat zany way.
Did you skip to the end of this history to see what was under ‘Z’? You’re one of those people who reads the end of a book first. You’re not? Even if you disavow all claim to being an end-thief, I bet you were one of those little kids who read with a torch under the bedclothes. Maybe even now you secretly sniff a brand new paperback before you get down and dirty with a book. Or you’ve got a quirk about not bending the spines. Or not turning down pages.
What’s all this got to do with Zaffre, you might be wondering – please hurry up and tell me a story. Well, stories come in all stripes and sizes from zebra to zoo. We could have easily picked Zeal, Zest or Zany for ‘Z’, which would certainly sum up 26’s first decade. Or we could have pushed it to Zen or Ziggurat but certainly not Zilch. But no. Zaffre is… I’ll give you a clue, it’s a sort of colour. But you’ll have to see 26’s latest project, 26 Words, to find out.
And that, my friend, is the short story that takes you (us) back to the beginning again.
11 April – Jim Davies’ article proposing the idea of a writers’ collective in the design industry, ‘Designers must be more aware of the power of language when creating a brand’, appears inDesign Week.
Ben Afia calls up all the writers Jim interviewed for his piece, suggesting they meet to pick up the gauntlet he’s thrown down.
Eight business writers or writers in businesses who will go on to become 26’s founders, John Simmons, Martin Hennessey, Margaret Oscar, Ben Afia, Jim Davies, Tim Rich, Tom Lynham and Simon Caulkin, meet for a coffee. They agree that writing in everyday use is very important but currently undervalued.
After a few coffees, the octet decide to form a group. They hope it may be possible to recruit 26 members.
The search for the group’s name ends with Tim Rich’s suggestion of 26, referring to the number of letters in the modern English alphabet. They like the counter-intuitive use of numbers for an organisation that’s about words.
August – 26 – it’s legal name is 26 Characters – is registered at Companies House.
August – the idea of £26 as an annual membership fee is born. Despite an annual debate about it, the fee has remained the same ever since.
The group writes and publishes the 26 Broadsheet, an entertaining manifesto (designed by Harry Pearce) declaring 26’s intention to enliven business writing.
26 September – 26 is launched at the Design Council as part of the London Design Festival (supported by Penguin Books and Innocent Drinks). Some 100 writers, designers and friends attend. At the end of the evening, 26 has in the region of 76 members.
October – 26’s first newsletter goes out.
26 November – 26’s second event (after the launch), ABC: Arcanely Broadcasting Cosmetics, packs more than 80 people into Interbrand’s Strand offices for a talk on words and writing by John Mitchinson (QI and former Marketing Director of Waterstone’s), David May (BBC) and Sarah McCartney (Lush).
The 26 website, www.26.org.uk, is launched.
Membership reaches 100.
December – 26 celebrates Christmas with a literary pub crawl.
January – 26’s third event, Persuasion: Words on Advertising with Will Awdry of DDB, Gerry Moira of Publicis and writer Paul Burke at Unilever House, sells out.
March – Martin Lee hosts a 26 ’therapy session’ to examine the future of 26 at the Jerwood Gallery in London. This is a forerunner to the two ‘awaydays’ the Board has held between now and 2013 to examine the current health of 26 and its future.
March – 26’s first events committee is appointed.
May – 26’s fourth event, Great Brand Stories, featuring John Simmons (on Starbucks), Mark Griffiths (on Guinness) and Any Milligan talking about David Beckham, is another sell-out.
26 Letters is 26’s very first project. The project pairs writers with designers, who then create a poster exploring a particular letter of the alphabet.
The 26 Letters: Illuminating the Alphabet exhibition, a collaboration with the International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD), is launched at the British Library and forms a key part of the London Design Festival.
Cyan Books and Marshall Cavendish sponsor 26 for 19 months.
Cyan Books publishes a hardback book of the project and exhibition – 26 Letters is 26’s first ever book.
26 forms an educational partnership with the London College of Communication, based at Elephant and Castle (part of the University of the Arts).
Regional 26 chapters are established in the South West, Midlands, Yorkshire and Scotland.
25 August – the Scottish chapter is launched at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
26’s message board is set up on the website and flourishes as an informal forum for swapping ideas, sharing opportunities and skills.
The 26 Malts project pairs 26 writers with 26 designers to create identities and labels for 26 new single malt whiskies made by the The Scottish Malt Whisky Society (SMWS). The results are captured in a book 26 Malts: Some Joy Ride, an exhibition and talks – as well as in limited edition whiskies sold individually and in complete sets of 26 to SMWS members.
26’s next book, From Here to Here: Stories Inspired by London’s Circle Line, is launched and includes a poem by Simon Armitage.
A writing and design project related to the From Here to Herebook is developed in collaboration with Platform for Art and the London College of Communication – students and tutors create posters exhibited at 27 tube stations on the Circle Line. A parallel exhibition features stories from the From Here To Here book.
26’s Your Writing Sucks conference in Nottingham brings together more than 50 writers, designers, marketers and students to refresh their approach to words.
Berghs School of Communication, Sweden’s leading college for the creative industries, adopts the 26 Letters idea and creates a set of posters exploring the Swedish alphabet called 28 Letters. These are displayed in bus shelters around Stockholm.
26 delves into the practical side of writing life by publishing its first Wordsworth survey, collecting information from members about what their words are worth and how much they get paid.
Simon Armitage’s poetry reading event at the Faber and Faber offices in Bloomsbury, London, proves to be a hugely popular 26 event.
September – 26 celebrates its third birthday at the Truman Brewery in London’s Brick Lane as part of the London Design Festival. The backdrop is a typographic mural by Pentagram’s Domenic Lippa made up of sayings by 26ers, which forms 26’s contribution to this year’s festival.
26’s third book, Common Ground: Around Britain in 30 Writers is launched at the Edinburgh Book Festival and elicits great reviews. Each contributor, including guests Ali Smith and Niall Griffiths, picks a well-known writer who captures the spirit of the place where they themselves live or grew up, and writes a chapter about how the local landscape influenced their writer and themselves. Writers chosen range from Shakespeare to Van Morrison.
An Arts Council-supported Common Ground tour sees the book’s 26 writers speak at locations across the UK relating to their chapters.
26 launches a new website in association with Elmwood Design and Fried Rice Design.
26 inaugurates the sending out of a monthly e-newsletter for members. This goes on to be extremely popular and well-read.
December – 2006’s Christmas bash is a literary pub quiz in London’s Fitzrovia.
26’s fifth book, Bard & Co., features chapters by 28 writers examining ways in which Shakespeare can inspire people in business today. It is published by Cyan and launched at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London.
As part of the 2007 London Design Festival, the 26 Posters project (sponsored by JC Decaux) involves 26 pairs of writers and designers in creating six-word posters that comment on or reflect their location in prime advertising spots in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.
The Children’s Book Project, developed in association with Faber and Faber and the London College of Communication (LCC), matches up 40 pairs of 26 writers and LCC student illustrators, who then collaborate to create original children’s books.
The Common Ground tour continues throughout 2007 in locations across the UK and involves weird and wonderful happenings. It concludes with a special dinner and readings at the QI Club in Oxford.
A group in South Africa launch their own version of the 26 Letters project, 26 Letters South Africa, in collaboration with the International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD).
November – Getting Published is another very popular 26 event held at Faber and Faber. This time it is a panel event with three publishers talking about how to get published.
November – leading speech writer, Philip Collins, deliver’s the inaugural 26 Annual Lecture at the British Library.
26 works with PEN International to spread the word about its festival of world literature, Free the Word! The festival takes place at venues around London’s Southbank. 26ers respond through a wide range of written forms, including a blog called Free the Blog!
As part of Free the Word!, members also work with Eastside Educational Trust to support the work of young writers from across London. They form a number of mentoring relationships.
26 collaborates with PEN International on a project called 26 Exchanges, part of the London Design Festival (LDF) – 26 members and PEN members are paired to investigate the idea of language in translation. A 26 Exchanges book accompanies the exhibition, bringing together all the writing.
The 26 Exchanges project culminates in an installation involving 13 animations at the LDF – AllofUs, Pentagram, PEN International, 26 and UNESCO work in collaboration with the texts to bring them to life.
September – Oona King is the speaker for the second 26 Annual Lecture at the British Library. This is put on in association with The Storytellers and with the support of IABC and Simply Communicate.
The number of members officially exceeds 300 for the first time – it is possible that numbers reached this level level back in 2005 and 2006 but an accurate head count is only kept from 2007.
The 26 Treasures project starts at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in autumn 2010 and continues in various forms all round the UK until mid-2013. For the first project, 26 writers are paired with 26 objects from the V&A’s British galleries to write exactly 62 words in response to each object. More writers are paired with objects for a parallel online project.
The 26 Treasures exhibition gives rise to a new literary form created by 26, the sestude, ‘a reflective study in exactly 62 words’ and a reversal of the number of letters in the alphabet. The exhibition includes sestudes by poets Sir Andrew Motion and Maura Dooley.
26 campaigns for Writers in Prison on behalf of PEN International through the 26:50 project, marking 50 years of the Writers in Prison Committee. Fifty writers from 26 are paired with an imprisoned writer whose cause PEN International has championed over the years, and asked to pen 50 words as a response. The resulting submissions are published in the run-up to the 2010 Free the Word! festival.
Howard Jacobson speaks at the third 26 Annual Lecture just a couple of days after having won the Man Booker prize. In a wonderful coup for 26, Jacobson honours the commitment booked months in advance.
26 Seconds is a collaboration between writers from 26 and film-makers from the International Visual Communications Association (IVCA). The partners make a 26-second film on a topic of their choice, which is featured in the 2010 London Design Festival.
Major 26 Treasures exhibitions run in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For each project, writers are again paired with objects from the museum in question and asked to write a sestude. The sestudes are displayed alongside the objects in the museums or in special exhibitions.
The 26 Treasures Scotland exhibition runs at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh from November 2011 until January 2012. Writers include Alexander McCall Smith and Linda Cracknell.
The 26 Treasures Wales exhibition runs at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The Welsh project includes a Translation Challenge at the National Eistedfodd, which is won by one of the Welsh translations of a sestude written in English. The Welsh National Poet, Gillian Clarke, is one of the 26 Treasures writers.
The 26 Treasures Northern Ireland exhibition takes place at the Ulster Museum in Belfast. For this project, each sestude writer works with a visual artist. Writers include Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon and Bernard MacLaverty.
July – the project 26 Flavours runs for a month at Trebah Gardens, a sub-tropical paradise on the Helford River near Falmouth in Cornwall. Writers from 26 and designers from the Cornwall Design Forum are paired up then randomly matched with an item of Cornish food or drink and tasked with creating a piece of art that functions both as a wall poster and as an A3 laminated table setting.
8 October – 26’s first one-day festival of words and other phantasmagoria is held at the Free Word Centre in London’s Farringdon Road. The Throwaway Lines project, about transforming the scrawl found on discarded scraps of paper on the streets into stories, is launched.
The 26 Stories of Christmas project asks 26 writers to pick an object that sums up Christmas for them, pairs them randomly with another writer’s chosen object and then tasks them with writing 500-word stories about the object they’ve been given. The results are featured on a special website. Children and young people who have been helped by the Teenage Cancer Trust and It’s Good 2 Give donate illustrations and there is an option for readers to donate.
The 26 Treasures of Childhood project features in East London’s V&A Museum of Childhood’s exhibition, Modern British Childhood, that explores how the nature of childhood in the UK has changed since 1948. Writers from 26 are paired with objects in the exhibition that match the era that most closely corresponds to their own childhood, and then compose a sestude inspired by their object. Local children are also involved and write sestudes for objects relating to 2000-2010.
A year-long project, Archive Dive, involves 26 writers picking D&AD projects representing each letter of the alphabet that have won past awards and writing about them. The resulting blog pieces are published fortnightly on the D&AD website throughout the year.
26 approaches Unbound, a publishing organisation that uses crowd-sourcing to produce books, to produce a book version of26 Treasures. Unbound designs and prints the book after hundreds of people have subscribed to it and it is published in September.
13 October – the second one-day Wordstock festival is held at the Free Word Centre. The 26 Miles project, which focuses on the London Marathon, is launched.
As a culmination to a year-long project in which writers have been randomly paired with discarded bits of paper and asked to turn them into literary gold, the Throwaway Lines: from Litter to Litterature exhibition runs for a month between October and November at the Free Word Centre.
The Story Works, a 26 storytelling project with D&AD, asks members to write about storytelling in many different genres. Initially there is space for only 12 writers but 26 persuades D&AD that 26 would be a much better number of participants.
The 26 Treasures of Childhood project continues at the V&A Museum of Childhood until April.
The 26 Norwich Writers project, in partnership with UNESCO and Writers’ Centre Norwich, celebrates Norwich being named in 2012 as England’s first UNESCO City of Literature. 26 writers are paired with 26 of Norwich’s historical writers to pen pieces inspired by the historic writer. Historical writers range from Julian of Norwich to Anna Sewell.
For 26 Miles, 26 members work collaboratively with a visual artist or sound engineer to walk or run their appointed mile of the London Marathon and create a response through words, images and sound.
The success of Archive Dive leads to a second year-long project with D&AD. The Story Works asks members to write about storytelling in many different genres. Initially there is space for only 12 writers but 26 persuades D&AD that 26 would be a much better number of participants.
September – 26 supports PEN Zambia, part of PEN International, by sending a box-load of new books as prizes for the organisation’s annual creative writing workshop for young people.
November – the 26 Treasures book wins the British Book Design and Production Awards in the Literature category, seeing off competition from editions of The Great Gatsby and The Odyssey. The book’s subtitle is: 4 national museums, 104 objects, 62 words each.
The project 26 Words, 26’s 10-year-anniversary project, designed to parallel the inaugural 26 Letters project, pairs writers with visual artists from the Letter Exchange to form 26 collaborative partnerships. Having randomly picked a word to represent each letter of the alphabet, each pair then collaborate to create a visual and typographic interpretation of the word. Some 16 of the writers and one of the visual artists were involved in the original 26 Letters project.
9 November – third Wordstock one-day festival is held at the Free Word Centre, with novelist and short story writer Kate Mosse as one of the speakers.
9 November – Wordstock concludes with 26’s tenth birthday celebrations featuring champagne and a cake in the shape of a Sherbet Fountain.
9 November – the next 26 project, 26 Characters, in conjunction with the Oxford Story Museum, is announced during the birthday celebrations.
A second 26 Stories of Christmas asks 26 writers to pen Christmas poems in the form of sestudes to match illustrations drawn by children involved in the charities, Teenage Cancer Trust and It’s Good 2 Give. The result is an online advent calendar of Christmas poems and pictures. Top
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