the team behind the book

The word ‘team’ is a bit of a misnomer for the people who helped morph an initial idea into a fully-fledged successful project, implying notions such as leadership and management. The wonderful coterie listed below (in alphabetical order) all have busy lives doing other stuff, doubtless being led and managed, or perhaps leading and managing. Not much of that here! But they responded to my texts, emails, phone calls, met from time to time, and made things happen.

Fiona Alexander: Fiona epitomises the busy-ness of the ‘team’ in their daily lives. She’s Communications Director of UHB NHS Foundation Trust and so, as well as business-as-usual in a large hospital (and one which also receives the badly wounded from battlefields), she was heavily involved in getting the opening of the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital to happen smoothly on 16th June 2010; what better way to handle it than open at two in the morning? Such imaginatively practical good sense, plus knowing lots of seriously good scientists as well as how the media work has been invaluable. Moreover, as a communications expert, she can convey a great deal with pithy effectiveness. Long live her style of SMS!

Steve BedserSteve Bedser: Steve helped plan this project shortly after it got off the ground and started to look like it was a go-er. Getting stuff down as a schedule then nagging until promises become a reality helps. He has an often witty line in saying it how it is, rather than how you’d like it to be. Uncomfortable even with the wit? Sure. But necessary.

Unfortunately for us, Steve went and got himself elected as a Birmingham City Councillor in the 2010 elections. Hence he’s correctly surmised that he owes the people of Kings Norton more than a tad of his attention. He is, however, still keeping a watchful Eye on the project and, as importantly, upon me.

Nick Booth: Right from the start I knew social media provided a superb means to get the word out about the book and the project as a whole. And who better to advise than Brum’s own social media man, the one and only Nick Booth? He’s encouraged me, given me a hug from time to time when I’ve felt clueless or out of my depth — and told me my writing can be ‘obtuse’ (accurately, alas), my personality ‘tenacious’ (and that in a reference for goodness sake!) and sent me what even he calls ‘snotty emails’; i.e. he has been what’s needed.  And to think I met him only a couple of month into the project.

Chris Buckham: When the bluebells were in all their glory in the spring of 2009, Chris and I walked the Cotswold Way from Broadway to the Mount Inn at Stanton with me telling him about this project, ‘cos I wanted his take on whether or not I was off my head in thinking it was a brilliant idea. I’ve known him yonks so I knew he’d tell the truth, plus I valued his opinion as he’s an experienced marketeer, currently an Experian Decision Analytics executive. Yup, he saw it for what it was, a brilliantly simple and effective idea.

I’ve not only really valued his advice in helping shape the idea into this reality, he’s the guy that came up with the name “Linus” for the publishing company; whether it’s the double Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling (even if he did “go doolally about vitamin C” as one of the scientists put it), the intellect-with-comfort-blanket Linus van Pelt or Linus Torvalds of Linux fame, it all seems apposite. And it’s been useful, too, that Chris lives but a hop skip and a jump from The Fleece Inn at Bretforton.

Alison Murray: It helps to have a scientist on board, especially one who can write very well too. Funded by an MRC AIDS grant, she solved the structure of protein dimer CD2d1 for her PhD (I’ve read some of the stuff thrown up by a google search on this matter — and still don’t have much of a clue as to what it means), and she’s done postgraduate work at both Bristol and Oxford Universities before joining the BBC Horizon team and going on to create factual programmes for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. Her skill is, according to her CV, “in bringing often complex scientific concepts over to the public in an engaging and exciting manner”. We’ve needed it.

Keith Richards: It would’ve been interesting but possibly unproductive to have an ageing Rolling Stone to edit The New Optimists: Scientists View Tomorrow’s World & What it Means to Us. So I settled upon asking this Keith Richards, an Associate Professor at Warwick’s Centre for Applied Linguistics to do the job.

He edited the scientists’ essays, collated them into the order they’re in, and wrote the illuminating Introduction about which, when Marc Reeves read it, made him say out aloud “he’s a really lovely writer“. Oh yes.

I have persuaded Keith to do other stuff for me over the last 25 years or so including learning programmes for Rolls Royce & Associates (that was the first, and it won a National Training Award), Jaguar Cars and Zeneca Agrochemicals (now Syngenta) — so I knew he’d do a superb job here. And he has.

Julian racing for the British Heart Foundation

Julian Roskams: It was a good day when I drove down to Malvern to meet Etica’s Julian Roskams for the first time. Right at the outset he saw something catching in asking scientists to write about what they were optimistic about. He’s since told me he thinks this project one of the most exciting he’s ever been involved in.

It’s his efforts that have translated all the ideas of all of us, scientist and non-scientist, into paper and print. While I’ve been making a let’s-publish-this-book story up as I go along (and so often having to undo stuff and re-make it), Julian thankfully has a well-established publisher story in his head — and the project has really needed that experience. His cheerfully calm professionalism has never wavered even when I’ve been unreasonably demanding.

Mike Smith: Marketing into the book trade is a highly specialised matter and it seemed utterly opaque to me at the start of the project. So Mike from Red Page was the man we needed. Together we explored the havoc being wreaked across the publishing landscape by new technologies which allow consumer rather than producer-led decisions, and what opportunities that opens up to new players.

Agincourt, however, has been a burden we’ve all had to bear from time to time; why he thinks brawny men hacking each other to bloody bits in a muddy field several centuries ago is worth such passion is beyond me. But hey! A small price to pay. Besides which, there is something utterly engaging when an enthusiast goes (in my daughter’s parlance) “off on one”.

Jenny Uglow: It was a simply splendid idea to ask Jenny to write the Foreword. When I first received it, I read it over the phone to Steve Bedser (see above). You’re reading it like poetry, he said to me. How could I not?

I’d asked her because she can write such lyrically pertinent prose — think of all those wonderful books she’s written, including The Lunar Men.  The scientists here (in the book and from this geography) are, of course, following in that fine Lunar tradition of intellectual enquiry and pragmatism. In truth, she was a tad hesitant to write the Foreword at first, and asked for time to think about it. She took (what was to me) a long, a very long fortnight to say she would. Yes.

Spike WalkerSpike Walker: Spike generously let us use seven of his images on the cover of the book . . . Ed Targett (see below), after interviewing him, reported back to me that he was “a hoot”. Indeed he is. He has a stock of hilarious stories, penetrating insights and an astounding knowledge about Life’s many forms. But then he did start his career off with a zoology degree, taught in schools and colleges before taking what could laughingly be called early “retirement” some 25 years ago. Since then he has worked 14 hour days indulging himself in his lifelong passion of photomicrography — becoming a world-class expert. Being a many times Wellcome Image Award winner is but a part of the accolades that have come his way.

In August 2010, four young graduates joined the team crew under a graduate placement scheme. They were brought in to help with making this website more, plus all the grunt work in the run-up to the official launch — and they gave their all while only sometimes needing to be fed by yours truly:

Zeta Brown: A former veterinary nurse (don’t even think ‘menagerie’ for here), Zeta re-entered the educational system to get her first degree, and is now doing PhD research in early years and special educational needs. She’s also an organiser par excellence, hence made the events at the 2010 British Science Festival happen — the official launch on 14th September, a celebration dinner with the BBC’s David Shukman and the Ben Markland Quartet, a panel discussion on 15th September with Sue Beardsmore and five of the scientists and a lunchtime event on 16th September with myself, Kate Cooper, about the story of The New Optimists at the High Street branch of Waterstones.

Sushmita Chatterjee: With a first degree from Mumbai University, Sushmita is currently on the Masters in broadcast journalism at BCU.

She’s a techno-savvy woman so elementary matters beyond yours truly, like holding a camera still, are very much part of her professional repertoire, along with other more sophisticated matters like knowing where to point it, and what to do with the recordings she’s made; i.e. knows not just what an editing suite is but also what to do once in there. She’s also learned the importance of saying firmly “No, Kate, that won’t look right” whilst, at the same time – and this is key to the project – smiling kindly at some of my dafter notions.

Simon Harper: A graduate from the MA Media Enterprise programme at Birmingham City University, Simon is a freelance writer and copy editor. Blogging about music and comedy in the West Midlands, he is the editor of Who’s Laughing Now? and writes about arts and culture for a number of print and online publications. He edited Music Matters: A Regional Profile and has worked as a copy editor for Gardeners Click as well as contributing to a number of Channel 4 projects. Simon has been a driving force behind the blog and social media impetus for The New Optimists and has mastered the art of nodding, “Yep…we can definitely do that,” without looking noticeably bemused or worried.

Edward Targett: He was just finishing BCU’s postgrad diploma in broadcast journalism when he joined the team. Before that, he worked for South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency for three years and before that briefly for the thinktank, the International Crisis Group. His CV is, as you might have gathered, different. He left school at the age of 15  (fed up of knitting tofu and yes, it was one of those kinds of educational establishments) to do all sorts of interesting stuff overseas before realising he needed a better education. So he got a 1st in politics from SOAS (as you do) and, while there met his wife and started a family (as you do). Fortuitously for us, he can also hold a camera and a microphone steady, so he filmed some of the scientists, also made the display of Spike Walker’s work for the launch dinner plus keeping his Eye (and his journalist skills) on this website.

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