Monthly Archives: March, 2013

A CASE OF CREATIVE CURIOSITIES

Offering something in the nature of a contents page
A Twilight Zone
Your Nation Needs You: The Edwardian era and the War to End All Wars
The Long Weekend
Ministries of Information: Orwell’s BBC, the Propaganda Wars and the COI
You’ve Never Had It So Good
Mad Men, Swinging London and the Psychedelic Sixties
CDP’s Golden Years
Two Saatchis and a Strangely Shy Economic Miracle
New Labour, New Britain, New Media Horizons

IN CONVERSATION WITH BILL BOWMAN ON THE GREAT NORTH ROAD

The real sceptic, he said, is sceptical by character rather than conviction; the intellectual drapery in which he clothes his scepticism has as little importance as the demonstrations of the believer – it is, indeed, more likely to veil than to reveal the naked Truth. Moreover, knowing that his mind will enable him to doubt everything, the sceptic scorns the crudity of stating his belief; he merely lives it.

“For instance, take what happened to me while I was on my way to Scotland to join some friends for a climbing holiday. Halfway up the Great North Road – I was travelling by bicycle – I began to suspect that Scotland did not exist: that it had been invented just to make a fool of me. All of the books I had read, all the stories about thrifty Scotsmen, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Rabbie Burns, songs about Loch Lomond and Bonnie Charlie: all these were part of the conspiracy.

“The northerners who pretended to come from Scotland were all in the plot; their accent had been invented for the purpose. I was almost convinced that at Berwick-on-Tweed I should be laughed at by thousands of practical jokers whose entire lives had been devoted to bringing about this one ridiculous event.

“I became so apprehensive that I was unable to continue my journey by cycle. I thought that if I went by train I should avoid exposure; for if Scotland really did not exist the Railway Company would certainly know about it and would not issue a ticket. But when I got to the booking office I realised that if this was the case I should look just as foolish trying to buy a ticket as if I had tried to cycle to Scotland – with no possible chance of pretending that I had really no intention of going further than the border.

“I realised too that if there actually was a conspiracy the Railway Company would be in it and would have false tickets ready at every booking office in case I came along.

“But it was too late to turn back. I bought a ticket to Berwick, and was almost sure that the clerk looked disappointed. Once on the train I made discreet enquiries of my fellow travellers, besides examining labels in the luggage van, and decided that if it was all part of the conspiracy it was a remarkably thorough business.”

“I decided that Scotland was a calculated risk worth taking. At Berwick I left the train and cycled over the border.”

Link to SCOTLAND THE WHAT?
Or to Grand Central

THE SPITZBERGEN EXPEDITION, DAY THREE

Sunday 8 July 1934
The Norwegian who had complained of the cheap fish was drunk before breakfast. He sat in the smoking-room singing folk songs and calling “Cuckoo. Cuckoo.” At first it was funny. He tried to walk along the top of the seats and broke an electric bulb with his head. It exploded with a great noise. After that he was aggrieved because the steward spoke roughly to him. He kept saying that he had paid as much for his ticket as anyone else, that we were given beer and cigarettes because we were English. “It is not correct. It is not correct,” he kept saying. He took up with another drunk and they danced together. The second drunk had a sweetheart waiting for him, he said, and showed us a bottle of “parfoom” he had bought for her. Then he tried to pick a quarrel on the grounds that we were “college men”. After luncheon both drunks were sleepy. At Bergen, at 6 o’clock, they looked torpid, but they kept up their joke about “cuckoo”. There was a man in a kilt, and a couple in green leather shorts.

There was half an hour of fjord before we reached port. At first Bergen seemed ugly, red gables dotted among green hills and square Thames-side warehouses. Sandy’s laissez-passer was effective and we got our baggage straight to the Tromso ship without customs; an inferior ship to the Venus in every way, with surly officers and a badly equipped, four-berth cabin. We did a lot of carrying ourselves. When everything was fixed we went ashore. The waterfront is built with charming eighteenth-century timber houses with semi-classical gables. We looked for a gay restaurant but found nothing except a large empty hotel, with an orchestra, called the Rosencrantz. Good dinner and bad Chianti. Afterwards looked for a café without success. Hugh went to sleep on shore. In our ship they turned out the lights at 12 but it was only twilight. At 10.30 it had been broad day.

CONCERNING FERBER

“Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continually fell and which, as he was coming to realise, he loved more than anything in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little into nothingness. And indeed, when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often thought that his prime concern was to increase the dust.”

ANY COLOUR YOU LIKE

The fortieth anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s Dark side of the Moon was covered by media outlets everywhere. Yet 24 March 1973 was a black day for the light entertainment industry.

Dark Side of the Moon’s place in the history of popular culture isn’t at all well understood, largely because the album sold so well. Big bucks, big album, big deal. End of story.

But actually, it was far more important than that – and its back-story is rather intriguing. Dark Side of the Moon, far from being a creative tour de force, was, in the minds of its creators, an admission of creative defeat. And, in defeat, they attempted to pull a whole edifice down with them. In short, the album is a sour attempt to decree that the psychedelic era in music, an era that the band had helped to create, was now over.

It pretty much succeeded in this secondary aim – though Ian MacCulloch would no doubt argue that he and his band, Echo and the Bunnymen, were still releasing psychedelic albums a decade later.

Pink Floyd’s admission of defeat was a pretty clear cut case. The band’s greatest creative achievement, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was masterminded by the band’s leader and most creative member, Syd Barrett. But Barrett, famously, succumbed to mental illness (and of course as a consequence he’s cited, tiresomely, as one of the era’s most prominent “acid casualties”) soon after the album’s release in 1967.

What to do? The remaining members decided to prove they weren’t a one man band. And when, after a few insipid albums, they realised they were struggling, they started to ape many of their even-more-insipid contemporaries: they decided they could create mind-bendingly good music by taking psychotropics and launching into long improvisational jams.

All of the free-spirited (ie, not The Beatles or The Stones or The Who) pop acts of the late 60s went off down this route towards the end of the decade and they got precisely nowhere. In Pink Floyd’s case, nowhere is to be found on the second side of Meddle, the album prior to Dark Side of the Moon. The dark side of Meddle is a single track – a 24 minute piece of self-indulgent noodling, called Echoes, that proved to all concerned that the band, in its post-Barrett configuration, had absolutely lost its way.

Syd Barratt didn’t invent psychedelic music. Those with better credentials include the avant-garde composer George Martin, whose 1966 composition, Tomorrow Never Knows, is unique in the history of popular music for having inspired a tribute band all of its own. And one of Tomorrow’s more talented members, Steve Howe, went on to form a psychedelic band that’s been almost completely written out of the annals – Yes. There are many others in the mix too.

But what Pink Floyd did invent was the notion, unheard of until 1967, of psychedelic colours. In the 1950s and early 60s, the tiny elite who knew about LSD used the word psychedelic to denote the notion that the drug allowed you to see clearly into your own soul.

The notion of the soul (a fictional entity created at the interface of philosophy and theology) is not a notably colourful concept. In 1966, psychedelia was as black and white as the Revolver album cover.

It was only when Pink Floyd began playing psychedelic music accompanied by a coloured light show at the UFO Club in Tottenham Court Road that people started to talk about psychedelic colours. It was a Pink Floyd thing. Dammit, they owned the concept.

So this was the baggage the band was burying, along with Syd, on Dark Side of the Moon. Thus the album’s cover art – a prism, splitting white light into its rainbow constituents. It’s as cold and clinical an evocation of colour as can be imagined. Thus also the dark cynicism of the album’s lyrics – a tendency that was to become central to the band’s new branding. Thus also the dark heart of the whole exercise: a song, courtesy of a dictum (mistakenly) attributed to Henry Ford: any colour you like as long as it’s black.

Having interred Syd on the dark side of the moon, they felt free to weep crocodile tears, calling their next album, with cynical hypocrisy, Wish You Were Here. And where exactly was Here? Well that, as they say on children’s television, is another story for another day.

I’m off to buy some skins.

TREVOR BEATTIE’S FIVE SECONDS OF FAME

I’ve never met Trevor Beattie – so I’ve absolutely no idea how impish* he really is. Some of us are naturally impish; some of us aspire to “impishness”; and others have impishness thrust upon them. But in Trevor’s case, I rather suspect we shouldn’t be fooled by the bubble perm and the regional accent.

Both Trevor and the organisers of the conference at which he staked the remnants of his reputation on the efficacy of the five-second commercial will have been vaguely aware of the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

These are desperate times – and there’s surely every justification for the adoption of desperate measures. And yet… there has been talk recently of horse meat in the advertising food chain – and this is a prime example.

But perhaps we shouldn’t dwell on the less funny aspects of this episode.

Clowning was reinvented for the modern era (the so-called counterculture era) by a creative team comprised of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The latter is almost completely forgotten now – and the former is perhaps best remembered as Inspector Clouseau. But his greatest creation was one of his last – Chance in Being There.

Chance, a chronically autistic gentleman of advancing years, is, by happy happenstance, adopted by the Washington power elite, who read insights of searing profundity into his every banal observation.

It’s a scenario of increasing familiarity in our neck of the woods. Having suffered something of a collective nervous breakdown last year, the advertising industry is terribly vulnerable to the blandishments of the idiot savant. Its critical faculties have been particularly dulled when it comes to certain rather predictable aspects of the avant-garde, with everyone petrified lest they be accused of being a Luddite.

Happily, some few have escaped with their faculties intact – and in the wake of Beattie’s pronouncement, which was picked up by national news outlets, there was gleeful speculation in some quarters about how he’ll sell the death of the 30-second commercial to a real client in a real pitch. Oh, said one commentator, to be a fly on the wall at that meeting.

I don’t reckon that’s the issue, though. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that this is effectively a done deal. Many clients are as good as signed up to the idea of the five-second spot. The real fun will begin when marketing directors, currently more than living up to their hard-earned reputations as the court jesters of British industry, start telling their chief executives that, with revenues flat-lining and time running out, they now propose to sign up to the advertising equivalent of homeopathic medicine.

When creative geniuses are accused of having a laugh, they often offer up what used to be known as the Christopher Columbus defence – the notion that pioneers are almost always mocked by unimaginative dullards.

And actually, in all truth, I’ll have to admit that I have some sympathy for this defence.

Because I too have experienced such mockery. People used to laugh when I told them I wanted to be a humorous writer – well, let me tell you, they’re not laughing now.

* There’s a more appropriate word than this: but it escapes us.

CAMPAIGN BABYLON

Campaign magazine’s golden age was the period between the mid 70s, when the Collett Dickenson Pearce agency was rewriting the rules of advertising, and the mid 80s when, having supposedly won the 1979 election for the Conservatives, the Saatchi brothers set about reinventing the business all over again. During this golden age, the magazine operated out of the first floor of a rather well-appointed white stucco building in Bayswater with a pillared portico over the entrance. The editor’s office had a balcony overlooking the street. Now its few remaining staffers (it is currently edited on a part-time basis by the editor of PR Week) are located in a dingy corner of a former hospital building on a mean side-street off Hammersmith Road.

Campaign was once one of the most resonant brands in British media – and during its heyday it was one of the best-written, sophisticated and vibrant magazines on the planet. It could hardly have been otherwise, given the nature of its readership: copywriters who would go on to write Booker Prize winning novels, commercial directors who would go on to make astonishing Hollywood movies and creative directors who were helping make the modern consumer society a reality.

The editor rightly given most credit for the Campaign success story was Bernard Barnett – but mention must be made of its two most naturally gifted editors, Mark Jones and Brian Davis. If you do nothing else before leaving this page, please take a brief glimpse at the Channel 4 documentary charting the final chapter in his terrible decline.

But here are some others who helped the magazine make its mark.

Lucy Aitken, Gail Amber, Belinda Archer, Jonathan Arnold, Jane Atkins, Jane Austin

Chrissie Barker, Bernard Barnett gets not just the one link but a second one too, Claire Beale, Emily Bell, Suzanne Bidlake, Lucy Blincoe, Deborah Bonello, Wendy Bristow, Tim Brooks

Lisa Campbell, Tabitha Cole, Pippa Considine, Matthew Cowen,

Ian Darby, Brian Davis gets not just a second link but a third, a fourth and a fifth,

Mark Edwards,

Vanessa Feltz,

Michael Jackson, Mark Jones, Alkarim Jivani,

Emma Hall, Stefano Hatfield, Margaret Hood,

Gail Kemp,

Jeremy Lee, Martin Loat,

Ron McKay, Gordon MacMillan, Keith McMillan, Caroline Marshall, Lindsay Masters, Dominic Mills, Tina Mistry, Glen Mutel,

Francesca Newland,

Camilla Palmer, Fiona Plant,

Alice Rawsthorn, Susannah Richmond,

Roland Schenk,

Eleanor Trickett, John Tylee,

Simon Watkins, Jenny Watts,

This is very much a work in progress. Any suggestions (names I should add, links I could better) gratefully received.

MY PREDICTIONS FOR THE TECHNOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGH MOMENTS OF 1969

Coming soon

Meantime, you can return here to Grand Central

AL GORE AND THE AWESOME TECHNO-COLOURED DREAMCOAT

How do we pull out of the slump, I hear you ask. Well, it’s easy. We start ditching more of the bullshitters and the fantasists. Particularly those happy-clappy evangelists peddling a sermon based around the proposition that we’re in one of the most awe-inspiring periods of technological revolution. Like, ever.

We’re not. We’re (as Stephen Fry wouldn’t say, even if you paid him to) so not. Take my favourite example the iPhone. The iPhone, lovely as it is, colourful as its icons are, isn’t much of a technological revolution. It’s a gadget that was cobbled together out of two (arguably three) technological hops and skips of the mid-1980s – the rest is half-cocked marketing.

We are, though, in a Stephen-Fry-sponsored era of monumentally tech-flecked witlessness.

Actually, its presiding deity is just as likely to be my old friend, one time drinking companion and former colleague, Derek (not his real name). Derek is a “character,” which is to say that he is a borderline alcoholic blessed with the gift of the gab – and, at the creative end of his repertoire, he does “voices” and party-piece monologues very much in the style of Peter Cook.

No-one was in the least surprised when he popped up a couple of years ago on one of the world’s most important committees on climate change. It turned out that he got the job on the strength of an advisory role he’d been handed at a major financial institution; and he’d landed the advisory role on the back of a speech he made at a heavyweight business conference. And he’d been invited to speak at the conference because he was a “technology” correspondent on an influential business newspaper.

Derek, famously, knows absolutely nothing about technology. He’s a press conference monkey; and, ironically, he specialised in covering other sorts of conference, filleting the technology papers and rendering them into something slightly closer to the language of Shakespeare.

Derek’s cv, now heavily doctored, is a joy. I’d provide a link to one of many online versions of it – but in the post-Leveson era, that’s a hostage to fortune I’d rather not offer up. Suffice to say, Kevin’s cv says that he has a relevant Oxbridge degree. Actually, he studied speech and drama at Redbrick Polytechnic and did a further year at Oxbridge Polytechnic (now rebranded as the Metropolitan University of Oxbridge), during which time he studied variants in the use of rhetorical devices in the soliloquies of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

So what, you may argue. Committees on climate change, you may add, aren’t very important in the whole scheme of things – and there’s only so much real damage they can do. And obviously you’d be right.

The real tragedy, though (a Shakespearean tragedy with rhetorical knobs on), is that Derek’s brothers and sisters are now running far more important things like media companies and ad agencies.

Take, for instance, Glen (not his real name), a chief technology officer recently returned from SXSW with tears of joyous rapture in his eyes, having heard Al Gore bear witness to the fiery truth that technology will cure all the ills of this world. It only requires that technologists make it so.

It goes without saying that Al Gore, a political charlatan of the very first water, doesn’t know very much about technology. But that’s OK, because Glen knows even less. Yes, he shared office space a while back with some third-rate code cutters; but Glen is actually a former Geography teacher. He was originally hired by an ad agency because he’s good a telling tall tales of faraway to small children. He hasn’t studied mathematics since his own days in primary school.

Does any of this matter?

You tell me.

But here’s a tip if you fancy an alternative way of curing (or at least making a start) all the ills of this naughty world. Every time you have someone come into your office burbling on about the exponential rate at which technology is evolving these days, ask them to point to one technological breakthrough this year (and I’m afraid that the Harlem Shake doesn’t really count, now does it?)

And if they struggle with that, ask them to point to one technological breakthrough in the last year. And if they’re still struggling, ask them to come up with one technological breakthrough this century. (Software systems designed to generate one million bits of meaningless data an hour about you or your customers may well be the most lucrative versions of the three card trick* ever invented, but they don’t count either, I’m sorry to say.)

If they still can’t help you, do feel free to show them that most awe-inspiring of Bronze Age technological breakthroughs, the door.

* The three card trick is sometimes referred to by its practitioners in ad agencies as “hunt the ‘lady’”.

SIX THINGS I HAVE JUST LEARNED ABOUT (OR FROM) JONATHAN MEADES, PART 2

1. (This is more like it.) He is a first-rate writer. This sounds a little old-fashioned. But that doesn’t stop it being true.
2. Corrugated iron was the material of the future in 1900.
3. Improvisation is no friend of innovation.
4. The British Empire lasted until the afternoon of 31st July, 1956, when Jim Laker took the last of his 19 wickets in the 4th Test against Australia. The Empire, famously, was mortally wounded just after dawn on 1st July 1916 – but it’s worth remembering that that it actually survived another 40 years and 30 days.
Eden was therefore, appropriately enough, the last prime minister of Old England, aka Great Britain. Harold Macmillan was (and don’t believe the hagiographers of Peter Cook who try to convince you otherwise) the first prime minister of New England – and as such was Tony Blair’s political grandad.
5. Meades derives great pleasure from nosing around my old school.
6. Meades is scathing about New England and its apogee under Tony Blair, but he’s more New Labour than he’d have you believe. For instance, I used to think that his apparent inability to understand England’s distrust of cities (and of urbanism in general) was an affectation. Now I’m no longer so sure. This is an unfortunate blindspot.
Similarly, I’d always believed that he had a sophisticated, horses-for-courses take on brutalism in particular and, more generally, on the full gamut of modernist movements in architecture; and, furthermore, that he was genuine in his contempt for the interlocking mesh of vested interests formed by the political classes, the building trade, architects and their trade press. I now suspect that he loves cities, especially a romanticised version of the archetypal European city, rather too much. He’s more in hock to the architecture profession than he’s letting on.
Perversely, I infer some of this from his comments on Lutyens’ masterpiece, Marsh Court, which I’m glad he loves – I just wish he loved it in a slightly different way.
Or am I kidding myself?
If you knew me better, perhaps you’d suspect that my reservations about Meades are simpler and more visceral.
You might point out, in other words, that I find it very difficult to take seriously an Englishman who chooses to live in Marseilles.
I, for my part, couldn’t possible comment.