I haven’t told you about our name! Well, a rose by any other name smells much the same, but names are chosen for a reason and they do affect how the world reacts to us. So where on earth did “Pierian” come from?
The year of Refurb gave me thinking time – but I needed to get the Centre’s name on things like planning applications as soon as poss. My first impulse was the Anahata Centre. In Sanskrit, the 4th Chakra is the Anahata or Heart Chakra. It’s associated with a calm serene sound, void of violence – and its major function is Love on a global basis. The love in a relationship wants to possess the person; on a global level it wants what is best for the person. This chakra is also associated with compassion, charity, psychic healing – and basically everything we stood for. But my friends groaned! People aren’t coming to the place for Buddhist philosophy or New Age enlightenment, they’re coming for good coffee, nice biscuits and an inspiring place to work – full stop! Don’t ram philosophy down their throats – they’ll stay away in droves! I stuck my tongue out and growled, but went back to the drawing board……
Okay, a Sanskrit word was a bit weird for a training and conference centre. But I was determined to keep the Heart and Inspiration in there somewhere. Inspiration seemed to me a missing ingredient in almost every aspect of modern life. The whole point was to create a learning environment that was an improvement on some of the soulless and dispiriting function rooms I’d spent the last ten years working in.
Google wasn’t around back then, so it was out with the reference books and off with the search parties. I hunted high and low; I tried hi-falutin’ and I tried low-brow basics. I tried different words and concepts. And then I looked up Learning – and, lo, I came up trumps! Alexander Pope’s lines leapt off the page: “A little learning is a dangerous thing: drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!” The words had familiarity combined with authority – but they also had an almost threatening sense of urgency. Pierian! What and where was the Pierian spring…?
Nick and my parents and I eventually traced the Pierian spring, through those old fashioned things called reference books, to the flanks of Mount Olympus. There the winged horse Pegasus had struck the sacred mountain one blow with his hoof and a spring had gushed forth. For the ancient Greeks it had evermore been the home of the Muses and the source of inspiration. So Pierian was synonymous with knowledge and inspiration. It couldn’t be better! And appropriately for my Georgian building, the term was enshrined in Pope’s elegant eighteenth century verse.
So I had my name – and I set my cartoonist friend Geoff to work on the Muses. He produced a very funny and rather beautiful set of drawings – one for every single room in the Centre. The Muse of the Loos could have stepped straight off an Attic vase, except that what she held in her hand was a bog-brush not a lyre!
The Nine Muses of course were concerned with the arts, with poetry, dance, music and so on. And the Centre, as it entered its first Autumn in 2002, was dealing chiefly with the world of work and also now of healing, self-development and complementary therapies. But the arts have always been dear to me. I spent my formative years working in theatre – a world where the different muses often collaborate and sometimes collide – and I felt that the arts were an ingredient missing from the Pierian pie. I’m not an artist myself, but the service a poet tenders to his muse seemed very similar to the demands my “calling” made on me. So what was I going to do about the arts?
I had the platform – a beautiful Georgian building – and I had some pretty good contacts. So in November we went ahead and unveiled the first of our Themed Evenings. We wanted to treat people. We wanted a sense of stimulation and abundance. So we adopted a sort of three-ring circus format in the sense that there were too many goodies for any one person to catch them all. Four workshops ran simultaneously in separate rooms, and were repeated after a break for food and wine. People had to choose which two of the four they’d most like to join – and the result was a Piccadilly Circus of ideas, impacts and dreamy impressions. The theme for that first one was Story-telling – and was followed by more over the next six months on Making Music and the Greek Myths.
We had the blissful Exultate choir rehearsing weekly in the Music Room, and Shakespeare-at-the-Tobacco-Factory auditioning in the Freeman Room. But the visual arts were lagging. The walls of the main training rooms, I felt, should remain unadorned. Pictures and images can colour the work and shape the energy in a space – and besides I’d installed wooden rails round each room so that flip-chart paper could be pinned up without harming the walls. But the Morning Room and other common spaces already held what pictures I possessed. So I began adding to them. I bought some of the early oils of my good friend Clare Du Vergier – atmospheric studies of Scottish moors – and Janet Margrie did me a beautiful, spare painting of Portland Square in winter. But a huge step was taken when we turned the Centre into a gallery for the first time under the guidance of our first curator Annie Davenport.
The effect was like climbing into your showiest party frock. The uncluttered simplicity of the Georgian architecture had a beauty of its own, but its very openness made it a perfect host to other works of art. That winter we filled wall after wall with vivid works by local artists. It was only for a weekend – the rooms had to return to sober neutrality for Monday morning – but it was a glorious glimpse of what this building could do. And we would go on to do so much more! In fact the seeds of many future events were already being sown in the arrival of Joe Hoare as Centre Manager. Joe would become our Laughter Workshop leader, and head up the team for our Health and Wellbeing days and programme of talks.
As we completed our first year, I looked back. Corporate bookings were growing; our engagement with health and wellbeing was very healthy indeed – and our arts programme was exciting! My relationship with Nick had run its course and ended – but life was too busy to easily replace it. Running the Centre was calling on all the experience I’d amassed as stage manager and company manager at the Bristol Old Vic and in my brief foray into catering. The discipline of having both Front of House and backstage ready for actors and audience was identical. Call the half, ready at the five, green for Go, and Curtain Up! I felt I had the measure of the good ship Pierian. What I didn’t know was that new winds were about to change our merry course forever!