A test of resolution

Turbulent times call for strong nerves. Walking along the canal to my office early last week I was admiring the heron standing on the opposite bank, its beak poised to thrust into any fish swimming its way. Overhead several seagulls, encouraged inland by the lack of fish in the Bristol Channel and the profusion of fast food left on the streets of Bath, hovered looking for tasty morsels. One gull, possibly more hungry than the rest, did something I’ve never seen before – flying first to a great height it then dive-bombed the heron, as if to displace it from its perch.

Gulls are large and strong birds, whereas herons are slight, being a perfect adaptation to a particular form of fishing. The heron remained stock still until, at the very last second when the force of the impact would surely have killed the heron, it simply opened its enormous beak and snapped at the gull. Suddenly realising the danger it was in, the gull, with the skill of a Harrier jet pilot threw itself into a barely controlled role; emitting a most furious cry, the gull headed downstream. Infuriated at its failure, but not one to give up, it tried again at least a dozen times. Every time it changed its line of attack, from the left, from the right, from behind, and from up and under. The heron, quite remarkably, never flinched and was still standing its ground as the gull eventually flew away, probably swearing!

An hour or so later I, too, needed such strong nerves. Months before, knowing that one of England’s largest grant-making charities was encouraging applications from organisations such as ourselves, we had submitted a detailed proposal for funds to extend the argument beyond the politicians to the general public. We had written many papers, and had several lengthy discussions about the need to radically transform the nature of social and political dialogue in England to deal with an issue of this magnitude.

With the memory of the heron still fresh in my mind I nervously opened an envelope that had just arrived from the Foundation. “You make a powerful case for what is wrong… and what ought to underline policy in this complex and inter-related area… but the breadth of your remit – necessarily so I accept – (means) the impossibility of identifying outcomes in the medium term…” Which meant that they would not support us. The letter concluded “My best wishes… as you begin to generate the national and political debates that are so vital.”

I cringed and trembled as I thought of other times in the past which seemed so similar. Grant-making bodies, entrusted by their founders to back innovation, seem staffed by officers who just do not have the controlled nerve of the heron, and don’t seem able to understand those who do.

At that moment I longed to have the steadfast nerve of that heron. Then I remembered the quotation sent to me more than 20 years ago from a well-wisher who quoted Edmond Burke: “Those who carry on great public schemes must be proof against the most fatiguing delays, the most mortifying disappointments, the most shocking insults, and the most presumptuous insults of the ignorant upon their designs.”

See Blog 35, and Action Ten of the Briefing Paper