Sermons in white stones
THE HUNGRY SPIRIT by Charles Handy, Hutchinson pounds 14.99
Sunday 14 September 1997
FOR A successful and wealthy management guru, Charles Handy writes modest, downsized little books, full of homespun wisdom and arresting images. This penchant for images - the "shamrock" organisation, the "empty raincoat" - has grated on certain commentators, striking them as glib and twee. The Hungry Spirit provides a few more examples - the White Stone, the Geranium theory - and its cover features the author in shirt, tie and black business overcoat, looking pensive in a field that stretches to infinity.
It's much more like a self-help guide than a business manual, and its maxims are the new truisms of voluntary simplicity. That's not to say that they don't have resonance. I particularly liked the "Chindogu World", from the Japanese word for clutter and superfluity. Got a washing machine with 16 programmes, of which you only use four? Can your video machine tape up to a month in advance, even though you only ever video things the same day? That's chindogu, where "buoyant consumer demand means a world full of junk". Even books, if left unread on the shelf, are chindogu. In such a world, "waste collection and recycling become boom industries,[and] thrift shops thrive".
But apart from finding us a slinky Japanese word for a familiar concept, what great wisdom has Handy got to offer? Appropriately for someone who resembles Alec Guinness at his most bland and meek, Handy - he'd be the first to admit it - puts forward the immensely engaging persona of a modest man with a lot to be modest about, a holy fool trotting about pointing out the obvious.
He keeps a white stone on his desk to remind him of some ambiguous words in the book of Revelation: "To the one who prevails, the Spirit says, I will give a white stone ... on which is written a name, which shall be known only to the one who receives it." Call it self-knowledge, higher purpose, the soul, or what you will. Individuals are all in pursuit of the white stone, but so are companies, whether they know it or not. Money and efficiency aren't the bottom line, and Handy disapproves of the notion that you can run your life as a business. He champions the notion of "enough", to put a brake on rampant capitalism and materialism: when the central heating reaches a comfortable level, we wouldn't keep on turning it up, would we? I remember a Chinese poem, translated by Arthur Waley, which made much the same point: you can't live in more than one room at once. Handy, as the bookflap points out, has homes in Tuscany, London and Norfolk.
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