“A chairman of Rolls Royce calibre”: Thanking Martin Clarkson

After 20 years as chair (the only one 26 has ever known!), Martin Clarkson (pictured left) is stepping away from the head of the board table. He has led and shaped 26 since well before so many of us were involved and we are incredibly grateful for all his work.

We asked members of the board for some reflections on Martin’s time as chair, as incoming chair Sophie Gordon prepares to step into his shoes. But first, some words from the man himself.

“But I’m not a writer”… 

These were the first words I shared with the veteran founders of 26 all those years ago, as they began their quest to find a chairperson.

Although offered humbly and not without justification or indeed relevance… my defence fell on deaf ears.

I was immediately appointed (non-writing) chair—a role I’ve enjoyed for every one of the twenty-odd years that followed.

Every project has been memorable, every book a new-born joy, every event yet another compelling moment to share the deeply rooted scriptures of twenty six.

But all of that takes second place to the people… the founding apostles of course, but beyond them to the many, many, who joined and played, simply for the love of words.

It’s as simple as that… it’s the love of 26 letters, the power of the narrative, that tightly binds this unique tribe of word groupies together.

There have been challenges of course—financial, political, social, climatic, economic and ‘should we meet on Wednesdays?’—all healthy signs of a living and productive group.

Throughout, the true role of the chair was to navigate and I’m thrilled we’ve been able to find in Sophie Gordon such a capable and inspiring navigator, to continue and possibly accelerate the journey.

I’ll stay close of course, my membership remains extremely precious—“but I’m not a writer”.

-Martin Clarkson

Reflections from the board

Way back in the early days of 26, at the end of 2004, eight founders had launched it at the London Design Festival. To our surprise we got an instant signed-up membership of 80 people from that launch. One of them was Martin Clarkson, whom I’d invited along to the event at the Design Council.

I’d known Martin as he was one of my clients at Marks & Spencer. Meetings with Martin were always fun and productive. Martin’s time at M&S was coming to an end and he was just setting up a new business called Storytellers—it seemed the right moment. We founders were getting on well but we had a rotating system in which we took turns to take the chair. It became obvious that we needed someone as chair who could help us move forward in a more professional way, while keeping the sense of enjoyment that had brought us together.

I suggested Martin, the others agreed, and, fortunately, Martin agreed. Looking back, that was the most crucial decision taken by 26. Without Martin we would not have grown and we would not have achieved nearly as much. All of us owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Martin; he’s been wise, energetic, balanced and he also brings the talents of a brilliant showman to 26 events. Even board meetings…

– John Simmons

The immediate analogy that comes to mind is this:

He is a chairman of Rolls Royce calibre. Under his guidance, meetings purr along, all bumps in the road smoothed out, gear changes almost non-existent. You come away feeling you’ve been chauffeur-driven to your destination. Not only has business been done for 26, but you are in a better frame of mind for the next thing.

– Alastair Creamer

Martin Clarkson is a gifted chairman. I admire his calm, organised approach, his sense of humour, and his unfailing eloquence. He has been very supportive of 26 training and diversity. Fun to work with on 26 Wordstock. But how many Martins can we have on one board? (Martin Lee, we can dispense with surnames now!) Big applause for Sophie Gordon who’s taking up the role of Chair. 

– Elise Valmorbida

Martin has always been an absolute star at our public-facing events—welcoming, witty, kind, inclusive, insightful, courteous (though with a lovely spikiness under the gentle exterior). The epitome of 26, you might say! 

He’s also been a masterful chairperson—his ability to get through the agenda and finish on the dot always astounds me. (No pressure there then, Sophie!)

– Wendy Jones

Martin is an incredible chair, an effusive supporter of all things 26, and a wonderful human.

Martin keeps board meetings on track, gives everyone a voice, and sums up what we’ve discussed with laser accuracy.

It’s great having Martin at events. His natural warmth makes him a perfect host and his love of 26 always shines through.

I’ve loved working with him. He’s sharp, encouraging, and always delightful company. I’ll miss him. But I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him yet.

– Andy Hayes

As hinted at throughout this piece so far, Sophie Gordon has moved from the newsletter to take over the reins for the next few years (we promise it won’t be a 20-year commitment this time!). We finally turned the tables and interviewed her for our February Meet a Member article, so you can get to know her a little better here!

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