Archive for August, 2009


A long time ago, in our pre-family days, when both Wife and I were working in advertising, she was due to get up early (4.30 a.m. early) for a shoot in Ibiza. The trouble was, the night before, she went out with her best friend: Sarcastic Six Footer. Sarcastic Six Footer is not only Wife’s bet friend, she is also her Drinking Nemesis – that person that we all have, with whom we drink ludicrous quantities of alcohol for no very good reason. The up-shot of this was that Wife was not home at 4.30 am and had a car due at 5am to take her to the shoot. She returned, at about 4.45am, cackling and swaying like a hen on the deck of the Titanic, and packed. I can’t imagine what she had been drinking, but it was something so potent that her packing for five days’ shooting in Ibiza comprised the following: three tee-shirt, five bras, five pairs of knickers and over fifteen floral hair accessories. No shoes. No skirts or trousers. No wonder she spent a small fortune in the shops at Duty Free to remedy her mistake.

I am pleased to see that this fault does not appear to be handed down to Daughter, who is taking our forthcoming five day break at Ickworth VERY seriously and has already done her packing, which currently extends to five bags, allows for her to change as frequently as a member of the Edwardian aristocracy, and almost covers the floor of her bedroom. As Wife muttered, when she saw the piles of clothes, toys and (cheeringly) hair accessories: “It’s five days in Suffolk. Not a bloody round the world cruise…”

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Part of my job (a large part of my job, in fact) is identifying and boring people senseless about archetypes and cross-cultural stories that can be identified and pressed into the service of brands. So I have spent a lot of the year to date talking about myths of dragon-slaying, archetypes of The Hero and the character of The Summoner for one of my brands; and on another, I have been working a lot on fairy tales, and working with the idea of the fairytale kingdom.

Maybe this has rubbed off on Eldest Son, who (as part of Wife’s on-going home tuition programme) was asked this morning to think what advice he might give to Snow White, and write a story about it. I reproduce it here, unedited:-

Dear Snow White,

Do not go nere the horible queen she is disappointed that you are fairer than her.  She is going to kill you.  So here are the instruchions.  1. run into the forest 2. sneec past the wolf named mac 3. clim the trees at the top swing to the mantains were 7 dwafs are.  You have reached your destination. 

I am torn as to what my favourite aspect of this is: the re-imagining of Snow White as the lovechild of Andy McNabb and Lara Croft; the fact that there is (in this version) a Wolf named “Mac”; or the fact that his final sentence is learned (and lifted entirely) from the Tom Tom satellite navigation device that we have in the car.

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Best Friend has decided that we need to start planning my fortieth birthday party NOW. She is giving herself roughly eighteen months to get it done, which I think is going to be ample as really, my idea of a good party is family and friends all in a warm space wherein we can hear each other. So, I would be deliriously happy with a Boeuf Bourguignon, an awful lot of Burgundy and thirty people. If that were followed by Wife’s Blackberry and Apple crumble, I think that I would have achieved everything that I really want to in life.

She has a different point of view.

In order to illustrate just how different (and what a remarkable friendship ours is to bear this sort of disparity not just with ease, but with pleasure), I will share the following , which is from an e-mail that she sent me last night:-

Dwarves dressed as little ballet fairies on fly wires to serve the Champagne sort of swooping past you and filling it as they fly past.

Dwarves painted (not dressed) as mushrooms that we’d sit on.

Dwarves with horse hooves, rabbit skin groin smocks and pan pipes.

Obviously this isn’t all, I just wanted you to know I’m actually quite far along already.

And (obviously) now that the dwarf thing has been mentioned, I’m quite keen – especially as I am 6′ 5″. On the other hand, this is basically an idea about saying “Look! Aren’t these people different to us in a FUNNY way?” – but maybe that’s OK. Especially if I can get my guests to guffaw and bray and throw bread rolls…

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There’s a great Mitchell and Webb sketch, wherein they play an author and an editor, with the latter giving endless recommendations to the former, and then withdrawing them with the coda of “…not that, obviously. YOU’RE the creative one.” After minutes of this, the author is left aware that he is being asked to do something really quite specific, and yet with the caveat that if he does any of that, he will be viewed as a mere cypher, and faintly redundant – so he’s caught in a paralysis of interpretation: and if ever there was a face that can capture confusion and bafflement at the stupidity he is witness to, that face belongs to David Mitchell.

This is such a familiar scenario to me (with Clients dancing around Creatives, tugging their forelock and pre-empting everything with the salve of “Obviously this is going to be shit, because YOU’RE the creative one and I’m just a human shaped winnet on the arse hair of the world, but what about…” before asking for a massive pack shot and a jingle) that I positively wriggle with delight every time I watch it.

However, we were recently in one of these situations as Planners, when Matey Planner drew us all together to counter the horror that is open plan and how we might respond to it. A room full of Planners is always a strange place to be (and now is not the time to rehearse all the questions about what the collective noun might be…) because they’re more prone to listening than talking, So, the meeting began with the usual exchange of glances and parade of diffident smiles: Planners don’t like to push themselves forward, either: so getting them started can be a bit of nightmare, but ONCE they are talking, it’s almost impossible to shut them up. They get taken with the inarguable TRUTH of a point, and then they get  OBSESSED with minutiae. Our ground-breaking, out of the box, blue sky thinking suggestion? Build offices.  However, we had to first go through the strange disavowal of expertise and ability dance that Mitchell and Webb captured, but Matey Planner has taken to a different level, of prefacing everything with “I Don’t Know…”.

Thus it was that he made the following suggestions:-

“I don’t know: maybe we take all the furniture down to a car spraying workshop and spray it all bright yellows and purples and pinks! I don’t know…”

“I don’t know: maybe we give everyone a thousand pounds to customise their own space: so American Diva Planner’s could have lots of tie-dye and a… and a.. and a HAT on it. And yours could all be black and white and – Maybe someone’s is like a map. Or we have a hundred images of Beijing and Paris and Shanghai and New York, laminated onto the surface. I don’t know…”

“I don’t know: maybe we get four edgy young artists in and say “Go wild with the space”. I don’t know…”

What we all DID know was that what we wanted was the following: walls, storage (of which there is none, currently), privacy (ditto) and quiet (also ditto). I suppose that would be what we all had before the walls came a-tumblin’ down. And I am pretty confident that that is what we will have in six months’ time, but… I Don’t Know.

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The G.K.Chesterton experiment continues – and I am enjoying it – but I became aware not that long after my first steps into Lake Chesterton, that I would want something else to complement its cool, lapping and soothing waters: that “something” has turned out to be George Steiner.

Steiner is a long-term hero of mine, ever since I came across “The Death of Tragedy” whilst at school and (predictably for a teenager) was obsessed with the misery, woe, self-centredness and formality of the genre. Steiner’s book wasn’t (isn’t) a simple education in precedent, form and structure – but it was (is) magnificent, ambitious, wide-ranging and (most importantly) of high seriousness. I have read everything he’s published ever since, being particularly fond of “Real Presences”, “After Babel” and “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky” – or I thought I had, until I came across “George Steiner at The New Yorker”, a collection of his essays for that great magazine.

It was in the excellent introduction (by Robert Boyers) that I came across the following passage, wherein Boyers makes the point that so many of Steiner’s colleagues and peers (from so many diverse fields) view him as “exemplary”:  ” “He thinks, ” Sontag noted in 1980, “that there are great works of art that are clearly superior to anything else in their various forms, that there is such a thing as profound seriousness. And works created out of profound seriousness have in his view a claim on our attention and our loyalty that surpasses qualitatively and quantitatively any claim made by any other form of art or entertainment.” While there were those, in the American academy especially, who were all too ready to reach for “the dismissive adjective ‘elitist’ to describe such a stance, Sontag was more than willing to associate herself with Steiner’s commitment to “seriousness”… His efforts to discriminate better from best continue to draw the epithet ‘elitist’,”

Now: I am neither so arrogant, nor so stupid as to even begin to draw a comparison between myself and the truly great Steiner – but I am also struggling under the “epithet ‘elitist’.” Needless to say, his metier is that of the true polymath, his consideration of greatness (in literature alone) spans Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – whereas mine is the very shallow world of advertising. But still: the JOB is to discard the better and reach for, and build, the best. I am unshakeable in this, but it’s getting me into a lot of trouble – there is a prevailing current of “no such thing as a bad idea” (palpably untrue, as scanning the theatre listings, bookshelves, cinema showings and television schedule should make it more than apparent) and “everyone’s voice is equal”. Well: RUBBISH.

What are inarguable rights of humanity (equality, representation, self-actualisation etc.) are simply not transferable to the realm of ideas: and I don’t see why that’s problematic. Indeed, it seems to me to be incredibly dangerous to assert that all ideas have equal weighting, all voices have equal resonance, all thoughts have equal brilliance: if you can’t say “That idea is poor in quality”, “that idea can be improved upon”, “that idea can be liberated by cutting away the dead wood that’s shadowing it” then what hope is there for great ideas? However, my enthusiasm for the great (and I will be honest: my dismissive treatment of the palpably sub-standard) is getting me a reputation of “only wanting to work with people he thinks are good” and the classic “he doesn’t suffer fools gladly” (show me someone who does, and I’ll show you a fool).

In the words of an infuriated Hanif Kureishi, during a Radio 4 interview at which he was surrounded by preening, specious, post-modern egalitarian pussies: “I’m sorry, but opera IS better than “Just Seventeen”. It just IS.” This captures my attitude precisely – but I am astonished at the number of people who are prepared to take the opposing side as they finger the toenails that protrude from their Birkenstocks, and adjust their bejewelled beanies, purchased at Womad or the fucking Innocent Village Fete or some such hell-hole of wilful ignorance.

I really don’t know what the antidote to this is, but my first act of defiance has been to put a poster above my desk with “Elitist at Work” written on it – and in quite an inaccessible font, too. I think we all know that Steiner would see this and think “mon semblable, mon frere.”.

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Times are `ard. Even in the well-heeled regions of Chelsea, where my office is, there is less of a spring in the step of the Tod-loafered bankers and Louboutin-shod lunchers: fear is in the air.

In reaction to this, Agency has decided to let the lease on one of the floors we rent expire, with the result that three floors of people needs to be fitted into two floors – and that means Open Plan, apparently. We are currently in the interim stage (everything bashed about, nothing finished, “holding pattern” seating) and what a dog’s breakfast it is: the grey carpeted floor is complemented by grey office furniture (ugly), and a horde of people all crammed in together like a Mumbai call centre: it’s as if a talented set designer had been asked to create an environment that screamed anonymity, despair and depression – and had done it very well. What is particularly challenging about all this is that the brief for the environment was apparently “creative, collaborative, contemporary” – and yet we have ended up with something that wouldn’t look out of place in a Kafka dramatisation…

I haven’t done open plan in a while and I had forgotten just have awful it is: the people walking right by you is one thing, but the very worst thing is the complete absence of privacy. Trying to think (or even write) as people hover by you with a watery, apologetic smile (which seeks to convey “I hate to interrupt you, but I AM going to”) until you finally turn your gaze upon them is really exhausting. So: we have to wait and see how the next stage goes, meanwhile I have planned for the worst and have my CV out with a headhunter…

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If there’s love, anything is possible.

If there isn’t, nothing is possible.

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