Writer, thinker, researcher, policy advisor – you name it and the chances are that Simon Anholt has worn that hat. Here he talks about the international world view that was always with him and the part that Bedales played in nurturing his talents. A lover of the written word, keen amateur musician and general polymath, Simon’s democratic philosophy on life is best summarised by his own words: “I try to make difficult and important things as simple and motivating as possible without trivialising them.”
The son of multi-lingual, mixed heritage parents with a penchant for the written word, Simon Anholt was always a decent bet for an international future of his own. “You don’t look objectively at your parents when you’re young but it’s thanks to them that I grew up convinced that other countries, and the people who lived in them, were always going to be more interesting than my own,” Simon reflects. “It was a surprise when I discovered, later on, that not everybody shared this view.”
Simon’s early years were spent in the Netherlands and it was not until he was five that the family returned to Britain. “My parents were admirers of Kurt Hahn and they were keen that their children should go to a ‘Round Square’ school if possible,” Simon recalls. “As it turned out, I started off the main part of my education at a boys’ prep school, Woolpit. It was conventional but at least it was kind, unlike many boarding schools at that time.”
Having survived the initial trauma of separation from his family, Simon began to develop a highly individualistic view of the world. “Prep school taught me to question things and by the time I got to Bedales, I was ready to challenge everything,” he relates. “My two-day introductory immersion at Bedales was an exciting experience but it took me a while to settle down: it was so different from what I’d been used to.”
Music and the written word played an important part in helping the process along for Simon. “The great outdoors wasn’t my thing at all,” he says. “Outdoor Work looked too much like sport to me, and I hated all forms of sport. On the musical side, there was an idea that I might try to become a serious pianist but somebody at Bedales taught me how to play twelve-bar blues and that was that: all I wanted was to be a pop star. The other great refuge was the Bedales library, which is still one of my favourite places on the planet.”
“To me, the library was always so much more than a building full of books,” Simon continues. “It was an observatory for looking at the world.”
There was plenty of encouragement to be found for Simon among the ranks of Bedales teachers. “As a house master, Tim Williams was so kind, patient and understanding even when at times I must have seemed unreachable,” he says. “Languages were important to me: George Smith, Catherine Dryer and Jessie Sheeler were first-class French and Latin teachers. It was probably John Batstone who had the greatest impact on me, however. John could be intimidating but he liked me and understood that I had been raised with a reverence for the written word; I was never distracted during his lessons as I was in other subjects. He spoke so colourfully about such a wide variety of texts – and the lessons we learned from John were at least as much about life as they were about literature.”
To me, the [Bedales] library was always so much more than a building full of books. It was an observatory for looking at the world
Simon’s original choice of A-Levels had been the rather unusual combination of French, Latin and Biology. “I don’t think I’ve ever consciously followed a plan,” he explains now. “I never knew exactly where my choices might take me and in this case, I knew that I was a linguist but I also wanted to be a scientist who could read Virgil in Latin. In the end, Bedales persuaded me to take French, Latin and English instead – a conventional set of “humanities” – and I rather wish I’d stood my ground.”
Simon went on to Oxford full of eagerness about the next stage in his life. “Never in my life have I wanted to remain at a place for longer than I needed to, no matter how much I loved it,” he notes. “What I wasn’t expecting to find at Oxford was that, thanks to Bedales, we were a year or more ahead in some subjects. So I added on a number of other subjects including computational linguistics (in the very early days of the discipline) and cultural anthropology, spent my third year in Rome so that I could replace Latin with Italian for my finals, and finally had a monastic final year getting my head down because all my contemporaries had already moved on.”
The first step on the road to a professional life that has been marked by its sheer variety was taken when Simon joined the advertising agency McCann-Erickson, first as a copywriter and then as international creative coordinator. “The idea of a job playing around with words was irresistible,” he says. “Of course it turned out to be far more challenging than that, but since those days, everything I’ve done has had some connection with language, culture and the community of nations. That instinct had always been there, from my parents’ enthusiasm for Kurt Hahn’s internationalism, to John Batstone adding Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Joyce, Dante and Flaubert to the “English” A Level reading list. I’ve always had a clear idea of the sort of work that interested me, and if I couldn’t find the right job at any particular moment, or the right company, or even the right sector, it seemed natural to invent it.”
To great effect, one would have to say. Simon would subsequently strike out on his own, founding World Writers, which offered companies cultural adaptation rather than mere translation for their international advertising campaigns. It was in his early 40s, however, that Simon began to make his name in the field for which he is best known – international relations and foreign policy. Here, his focus has been on helping governments to develop and implement strategies for enhanced economic, political and cultural engagement with other countries, on which he has advised the Heads of State and Heads of Government of more than sixty countries over the past two decades, including several years as vice-Chair of the Foreign Office’s Public Diplomacy Board.
It helps me that I suffer from incurable optimism. Even when something really challenging comes along, I find the upside pretty quickly
Perhaps most renowned for devising the Good Country Index, which seeks to measure the contribution of each nation to the common good of humanity, Simon also founded and publishes two major global annual research studies: the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index and Anholt-Ipsos City Brands Index, which use a panel of 60,000 people in 20 countries to monitor global perceptions of 60 countries and 50 cities. He has written six books about countries, their images and place in the world and his TED talk is the most-watched ever on the subject of governance, with more than 12 million views to date.
“We are so lucky to be living at this critical point in the human story,” Simon explains, “and it helps me that I suffer from incurable optimism. Even when something really challenging comes along, like Brexit or COVID or Trump, I find the upside pretty quickly. I have tried to view the world through a positive populist lens; I try to make difficult and important things as simple and motivating as possible without trivialising them. Experience has helped me along the way – as I get older, I aspire to the simplicity that doesn’t come from looking at the surface of things, but from looking beneath the surface.
More than four decades have passed since Simon left Bedales but he is not slow to join the dots between the education he received there and his achievements of the past forty years. “Bedales helped to shape me, without question,” he says. “The school taught me to combine intellectual rigour with originality and gave me the confidence to speak truth to power. In some mysterious way it has helped me to feel more motivated than daunted by the challenges facing humanity today.”
“I don’t spend much of my time looking back,” Simon finishes. “To me, the next thing is usually the main thing and in many ways I feel as if life is just starting. I make an occasional exception for Bedales, though, and whenever I do, all I feel is pleasure and gratitude.”
Simon Anholt was interviewed by James Fairweather in Summer 2021.