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A blueprint for success;Books

THE NEW ALCHEMISTS: how visionary people make something out of nothing. By Charles Handy. Photographs by Elizabeth Handy. Hutchinson pound;16.99. MILLENNIUM PEOPLE: the soul of success. By Derek Burnett. Hibiscus Books pound;16.95

Geraldine Brennan on two books that look at high achievers and their stories

The Renaissance might never have got off the ground if there had been a national curriculum in 15th-century Florence. Formal education has emerged as a less significant factor in fostering the creative and entrepreneurial spirit than the opportunity for the young to experiment, follow hunches, get things wrong, and meet the all-important mentors and role models.

The social commentator Charles Handy has interviewed 29 people who make a difference to discover what has made a difference to them. William Atkinson, the head who gave a "failing" comprehensive a new identity as the Phoenix school in Hammersmith, is there alongside Terence Conran, Richard Branson and inventor Trevor Baylis.

Although mentors are not necessarily found at home or at school, many interviewees, including Atkinson, name a teacher who was crucial in setting them on their life's path. Conran developed his taste for well-made furniture as a teenager when he had a chance to learn from leading craftspeople. They did not normally teach, but it was wartime and they were conscientious objectors. Two decades later, Habitat was born.

Handy is in favour of schools getting the curriculum out of the way by lunchtime and using the afternoon for community service and personal projects (Branson started a magazine at school, he reminds us). He is in favour of gap years (at least one, 20 if necessary).

This is part of his blueprint for growing more alchemists - for making turn-of-the-millennium London rival Renaissance Florence, or Athens in the fifth century BC, as a starting block for giant strides in human achievement. Handy believes it's well on the way already.

These ideas might well come to pass, as Handy is a great admirer of a quality he calls "doggedness" - refusal to take no for an answer - which is plentiful in his subjects.

Dee Dawson, who set up Britain's first anorexia treatment clinic in her home, was turned down by both the London Business School and medical school, but talked her way into both.

Jane Tewson failed her A-levels but went to Oxford anyway, got a cleaning job and sat in on the university lectures. Later, she revolutionised charity fund-raising through Comic Relief, and is now running a string of world-changing projects including Real Deal, which organises disadvantaged young people to lobby decision-makers.

Equally important, Handy demonstrates, is the ability to say yes to opportunity and to be open to it in the first place - you have to be in the orchard to pick the apples, he says.

The high production values and presentation of this book adds to its "hall of fame" quality. Elizabeth Handy's composite photographic portraits work better for some subjects than others - Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal, founders of the London International Festival of Theatre, are suitably showcased, but William Atkinson's portrait disappointingly fails to reflect the life of his school as much as the obvious energy of the man. But overall, the portraits inject light and air into the individuals' stories.

The home and work environments of superachievers are rivetting in themselves, as the publishers of Hello! know. Have the Handys looked at the role of the stripped pine kitchen table in fulfiling human potential? Probably - they have one themselves.

Millennium People presents 75 high-achieving black Britons, most of whom have given in-depth interviews. William Atkinson is not among them, but Keith Ajegbo, head of Deptford Green school in south-east London, is there along with tailor Ozwald Boateng, another of Handy's "New Alchemists".

Burnett has reached far beyond the sports and entertainment worlds where the stereotypical vision of the black high achiever tends to stop. Meet the senior civil servant Philip Henry, Metropolitan Police chief inspector Dalton McConney, Patricia Scotland QC (the only black child in her school, she was advised in a careers interview to apply for a job in a supermarket) and Commander Martyn Reid of the Royal Navy.

Burnett has taken on a much wider range of subjects than Handy, and sets out to celebrate them rather than attempt to analyse whether their get-ahead spirit is from a common source (although important mentors, visionary parents and the right teacher at the right time, are themes that recur). His black-and-white portraits are stunning and should translate well to the accompanying poster series.

The final major interview is with children's books publisher Verna Wilkins, who set up Tamarind Books with a mission to tackle "invisibility and omission" on behalf of black children. Millennium People has made a start.

Geraldine Brennan on two books that look at high achievers and their stories

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