Sound and fury

Paul DavisOn beauty, death, money, misanthropy, words, art and bowerbirds: in conversation with Paul Davis

This piece was originally written to feature in the catalogue of artist/illustrator Paul Davis’ show ‘Line in the sand’, which ran at the ginza graphic gallery, Tokyo, February 2015. It was subsequently republished by Creative Review magazine. As background, I’ve known Paul for more than ten years – socially and professionally. We’ve even played football with and against each other (those allergic to football will be pleased to know there’s almost no reference to the sport in this conversation). The catalogue was designed, beautifully, by Stephen Coates. PS Paul tweets here.

Location: a flat, east London

Time: 5pm

Objective: throw some light on the person behind the work of ‘Paul Davis’

Tone: convivial with sardonic undertones

TR Let’s begin with a promise from me: I’m not going to ask ‘Who are your favourite illustrators?’, nor ‘What’s your favourite type of pencil?’

PD Thank god.

TR I do want to talk about the way you play with language, though. Your work often features off-cuts of conversations, shards of revealed thoughts you’ve picked up along the way. Do you deliberately put yourself in situations where you might overhear something interesting?

PD No, it’s just that my ears are always open. Always have been. Growing up in a small village in Somerset did that. It was very quiet there. I graduated from a quiet village to a small town, which was a bit noisier. Then on to a small city, which was louder still. And from there to London, which is deafening. I’m fascinated by people’s language and tone of voice.

Paul Davis My Feelings For YouThere’s always a dichotomy in me – I’m often caught between two things, between two feelings – and that’s often what I see and hear in other people. So I was on Oxford Street in London, for example, and I heard a bloke saying to a woman: ‘Fuck off, of course I love you.’ I think it’s profound he said that, and it became a drawing. The next week I was at almost the same spot and a woman said to a man: ‘My feelings for you have nothing to do with you.’ And that became a drawing.

TR You also turn clichés and platitudes back on themselves. Why are we both irritated by that type of language? A lot of people ignore it.

PD Because it’s boring.

TR But isn’t it more than that? It’s language as symptom. The words point to a degraded way of thinking.

PD I aspire to beauty but it can be an ugly world, so I have to record it. With clichés, I dislike them because there are other, better ways of describing things. With advertising and corporate communications, they produce all these words that don’t actually say anything. I blame Apple, fair and square (by the way, that was a cliché: ‘fair and square’). ‘Think different.’ What about the adverb? Put the ‘ly’ in!

TR You sound like a pedantic, tweed-jacketed grammar-school teacher from Somerset.

PD That corporate use of language is just lazy. The Expedia campaign says ‘Travel yourself interesting’. The language is ugly and the tone is smug and patronising. I find the whole thing grating.

TR So would you prefer businesses to speak in a more formal way?

PD Why not? And why not be honest? ‘Buy a BMW because it will make you better than the lesser being next door.’

Trust with a broken reedTR In your work, as well as the colloquialisms and corporate-speak, there’s sometimes a phrase from really old sources. For example, I saw a drawing of yours today where the character says ‘I trust with a broken reed.’ That’s from the Book of Isaiah. The phrase describes the unreliability of things we lean on for support. It’s such a sad, violent image – the Bible talks about the reed piercing a man’s hand – and you’re applying that to a character who’s a thug. I love that blend of ancient and modern.

PD I was probably drunk, looking through the Scriptures thinking ‘That’s so poetic.’ My favourite lines are the ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,’ passage from Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Words are beautiful. Dictionaries are fat. We should use them more.

TR Let’s get back to that dichotomy you described. You chose to go to art school to study illustration rather than fine art. The tension between working on commissioned illustration and freely expressing yourself through art is still in you. Why did you choose illustration?

PD I did an art foundation shortly after my father died. I wanted to somehow take care of my family – my mother and sister – because I was the only bloke left. It was a rational decision: There will be work.

TR Looking back, are you happy with that decision?

PD No. I should have been braver. It’s a regret. With art you’re free to do anything you want. That makes art more complicated than anything else. You have a set number of notes in music. You have a set number of characters in language. But in art you have all of that and everything else, too.

TR But you practice art now, so what’s the problem?

PD A lot of people have other jobs and work as an artist. For a while, Jeff Koons funded his art by working as a Wall Street commodities broker. The writer Charles Bukowski worked for the postal service in Los Angeles. Lots of artists work in a pub or shop or whatever, and they do their job to pay the bills so they can do their art. My job is illustration, and some people have a problem with that because it’s too close to art. It used to concern me, too, but I don’t really care any more. One problem with illustration as a job is that the money has stayed the same for years, so in real terms you now get paid a lot less.

TR Do you worry a lot?

PD Yeah. I wake up at 4.44am pretty much every morning feeling bewildered.

TR 4.44am is such a pretentious time for insomnia to wake you up. Are you bewildered because you feel the world is confusing?

PD It’s basic neurosis. I know people who are worldly wise and can do practical things like buy a house and do it up. I have no problem with that, but I can’t do that. I’m jealous of those who can live in the world that way.

TR What’s your relationship with money like?

PD Terrible.

TR Easily parted?

PD For some unfathomable reason, yes. Money harangues me. It nags me.

TR It phones you up at 4.44am in the morning.

PD Yes! You know, I do find it galling that it’s people like me who start the regeneration of an area such as Shoreditch, and then we can’t afford to live there. I was in a pub the other day and two estate agents were talking, and one was advising the other about how to get on in the job. She said, ‘It’s simple, follow the artists.’

TR One thing that’s different about you and me is that I’m fundamentally optimistic and believe people are mostly good. You, on the other hand, are a pessimistic misanthrope.

PD I’m definitely misanthropic. But to me misanthropy is like a dull cloud over my system, my cells. It’s there, but the gorgeousness of life – even simple things like a stranger saying ‘Good morning’ and making eye contact – is so beautiful it supersedes it.

I’m really a failed romantic. In This Side of Paradise F. Scott Fitzgerald has his protagonist say: ‘…the sentimental person thinks things will last – the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.’ I love that line. Actually, the woman he’s talking to then says: ‘Epigrams. I’m going home.’ I love that even more.

The reason I get so disgruntled with the world is that I grew up in a bucolic place. Then I went into my teens and at that age you want to fall in love and have a great time, but it fails miserably. People die.

TR You mean your dad died.

PD Yes, a lot of my family did. And I studied and worked, and everything since then has really been about two things: making enough money to live, and love. Both of those have been a struggle until now.

[Paul starts to talk about his girlfriend Sophie, who has come back into his life after many years’ absence. As if on cue, she returns to the flat and we stop for a cigarette break.]

PD Where were we?

TR We were having a light conversation, talking about love and death.

PD Do you know the story of William Collingbourne? In the fifteenth century he was charged with writing ‘rhyme in derision of the king’ and sentenced to death. He was hanged, then cut down while he was still alive, castrated and disembowelled. Apparently, it was all done so quickly that when the executioners pulled out his heart he looked down at his chest and said ‘Oh Lord Jesus, yet more trouble!’

Heart Man by Paul DavisTR Tell me about the motif of a man holding his heart out for inspection. It comes up a few times in your work.

PD Well it’s based on those boring stock-library pictures of a businessman presenting something to people. The heart is massive, and of course the heart is a symbol for love. There’s the idea of head and heart – of thinking and feeling. And then there’s my dad dying of a heart attack.

My dad was a good cartoonist and I used to say to him: ‘What shall I draw?’ And he would say, ‘Why not draw the carpet?’ It was a beige, late-1960s carpet. And I would say, ‘But there’s nothing there!’ And he would say, ‘But there is!’ So I spent a long time drawing the carpet. Then the penny dropped. His point was you can make stuff up. And that’s what I started to do. I would look out the window everyday at the same view of hills and imagine they were huge toasters, or whatever. Then I would draw them. And this was well before I took acid.

TR Earlier you said ‘I aspire to beauty.’ What do you find beautiful?

PD I like hand-made uniqueness, so getting some recycled wood and making it into a bed or a wardrobe. I made a bed the other day – actually made one, I didn’t just tuck the sheets in. Trees are very beautiful; they can’t help it. That’s a great thing about Nature: it can’t help itself. There’s a type of male bowerbird that spends months building his bower and decorating it mainly with blue things. They like Bic pens, blue bottle tops, blue anything. And then they do a dance for the female. In the younger bowerbirds it’s all about how the male builds his bower; that’s what the female’s most interested in. And in later years it’s about how he dances. The courtship can take months and months. And then she might still reject him. If she accepts him, the act of lovemaking lasts about four seconds. Tragically beautiful.

TR I’m sure we can both think of past relationships like that.

PD Indeed. It’s beautiful waking up after a really good night’s sleep, which is rare for me. I find endorphin-induced euphoria very beautiful, especially as endorphins and adrenaline are always at war in me. In football; the perfect volley. When the rain starts or stops, but not during. With work, the finished article; when you know it’s finished. Weird and unexpected compositions I see in everyday life that will never occur again. For example, I saw a man in Hoxton drinking strong beer from a can. He was trying to hide the can in a plastic bag and a pigeon was just standing there, staring at him.

When you’re with your Love, walking down the street, and you both step on a wobbly paving stone – that’s beautiful. When you get ‘the look’. The smile. The arse of a woman who knows it’s good. When you’re drawing and you get the perfect line. Sophie’s profile – it’s so good to be in love, at last. Thoughtful foreplay and unthinking orgasm. Politeness, which is so rare. Beautiful things have to be rare. Coincidence. Howling with laughter with strangers. Lapsed zealots.

TR That’s a good 1980s band name: ‘The Lapsed Zealots’. So, you’ll be back in Japan for this show. I’m envious.

PD Japan is such a wonderful place. Actually I think Japanese people and British people have a very similar sense of humour: bizarre, surreal and slightly naughty. I’ve produced lots of drawings in Japan but always without words because I can’t write in Japanese. The work is rather pure, in a way. Sometimes when I use words in a picture it’s to justify the drawing, to make a story out of the drawing. My Japanese pictures are more like life drawing.

TR You said to me recently that you’ve stopped drawing, that this show in Tokyo marks a break in your work.

PD Well, I’ve stopped drawing for a while, though I’m still making notes. The exhibition itself represents a break because I’m going to show hardly any commercial work, and the commercial work I do show will be projects where I was free to do what I wanted. The work on display is exactly what I want to show. Afterwards I’m going to sell off lots of my archive.

TR Because I’m essentially a superficial person, I’d like you to capture the essence of what you’ve been saying today in one sentence.

PD I find the whole world preposterous but beautiful at the same time.



What happens if you leave the room (and your notebook) when interviewing Paul Davis

What happens if you leave the room (and your notebook) when interviewing Paul Davis


Posted in Advertising, Art, Authors, Brand, Business, Colloquialisms, Football, History, Jargon, Tone of voice, Writing | Leave a comment

On Elfgate

Magical Journey?In the earliest days of writing for the Internet, there were few places to go for advice on how to structure and present online copy. A book and some posts by Jakob Nielsen was about all that was available. Over time, good work and user testing helped writers understand how to best build a cogent pitch for whatever it was they were talking about or selling. As users got smarter, the writing had to get better – as did a sense of the intricate choreography of Internet content.

I was prompted into this rumination on the pioneering days of the late 90s by a far more recent news story, namely the temporary closure of The Magical Journey. Readers may already be familiar with the brouhaha that has shaken the synthetic snow from the non-native pines at this new Midlands attraction, already re-dubbed a winter blunderland by the less Christmassy members of the press. A farrago of Christmas theme park and Lapland-lite, the whole thing has been created in association with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Naturally, having read of anguished children, truculent parents and the tragic disappearance of Rudi the reindeer, I went to the Internet to find out more. Arriving at The Magical Journey’s homepage, I clicked on ‘The Experience’ only to be greeted by the question ‘Whats going on?’ [sic]. ‘What indeed?’ you might ask.

For the disappointed folk who trekked to Sutton Coldfield’s newest attraction on opening day it would probably have been the first question to pass their lips, the second most likely being ‘Can I have my money back?’ If only the omission of the contractual apostrophe were the end of the site’s woes.

Any laws governing hyperbole are clearly suspended when it comes to describing the velvety landscapes developed ‘in association’ with Llewelyn-Bowen who, it ought to be said, appears to be an all around good egg who may well be wondering – like those who went onto social media to complain about the thing – just how his vision got so poorly translated into reality. That said, and with all due respect, it defies several species of irony to suggest – as the site does – that Father Christmas has personally selected The Belfrey Hotel & Resort and ‘his close friend’ Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen to create this North Pole Outpost right on the not-at-all-Fennoscandian outskirts of Sutton Coldfield.

As the copy unravels, distracted by the glint of its own gilding, it suggests that The Magical Journey is (or rather, was intended to be) ‘a truly incredible and extraordinary development’. It ‘will be’ a winter wonderland of ‘magic and drama’ at the ‘amazing and legendary’ Belfrey Hotel & Resort (which swiftly denied any responsibility for the debacle). The site also claims that this is ‘an entertainment production the likes of which has not been seen before in the UK’. Sadly its like has been seen before, as anyone that visited ‘Lapland New Forest’ in the dark days of winter 2008 might attest.

Often, the linguistic quibbles that arise when distinguishing between what an attraction says it offers and what it actually offers can be settled in a website’s FAQs. In this case, the FAQs reassure potential attendees that the experience is for everyone – facilitated by the dispensation of ‘appropriate humour’ as you depart on your journey, ‘suitable for both adults and children!’

In the early days of writing for websites, when the Internet was still barely off the edge of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee’s desk, this sort of content, measured in volume and not clarity, was a form of the blight known as shovelware. In the case of copy, it stood for material that had simply been written and deposited into a website with no thought for the early adopters trying to make sense of the medium. Here, it’s as if the words came tumbling head over heels into The Magical Journey’s website when even a cursory edit (and some sub-headings) would have improved matters greatly. So although most web writers have put Nielsen’s seminal works to one side, a glance at online content structure over the last 10 years would have shown how far we’ve come in helping users understand and navigate online writing.

Lifting word-weary eyes from the website for a moment’s respite, the naming protocols across the physical aspects of the attraction also warrant scrutiny. A casual glance suggests that the organisers might have co-opted some of Llewelyn-Bowen’s celebrity pals in order to lend the staging points on this magical journey a bit of additional elf dust. You can step inside the kitchen of Mrs Clause (her maiden name is Mary Holly-Berry – you know – the woman off the baking programme). And we can also visit Simion Cowelf’s Academy… my assumption being that the additional ‘i’ was required to forestall legal action.

Magical JourneyThe rest of the topographical titling only exacerbates the breathlessness of this yuletide prose. During your visit, in addition to Cowelf’s Academy, you will be able to spend time at The Magical Cafe, The Christmas Market, The Christmas Tree Glade (which lies within Christmas Tree Wood), The Father Christmas Lodge, The Snow Covered Enchanted Wizardry Woodland (just a hint of the Potter about that one), The Magic Giant Gate, Uncle Holly’s Hut (just a hint of the Shane Meadows about that one), before pulling into Snowflake Station and pottering around Father Christmas’s Museum – where no doubt you will be able to look back on other attempts to mount a winter wonderland in the Midlands.

One of a number of recruitment ads seeking men to perform the role of Simion Cowelf strikes its own interesting tone. It makes it clear that verbal engagement will be involved, so applicants need an excellent grasp of the English language as there will be a ‘vague written narrative to improvise from’. No doubt the vague narrative includes phrases like “I know, I’m sorry about all this’, “Yes, you’d expect more from the bloke off of Changing Rooms’  and ‘Do you wish you’d gone to the Bull Ring?’

It seems even the operators of the PR machinery at The Belfrey – the ‘spectacular’ location of the attraction – were tongue tied by the affair, which Llewelyn-Bowen himself has called ‘Elfgate’. A message at (since removed) stated ‘The Event is not operated by the Belfrey’, dropping their own capital T in the process. What they did say is that the operators would make improvements to ensure the ‘Event’ (just a hint of the M. Night Shyamalan about that) ‘is truly magical’. If to be magical is to be removed from everyday life by something delightful, then it is hard to imagine just what the improvements might be – certainly Laurence’s ‘undoubted artistic eye’ and ‘innovative genius’ will have been pushed to the limit over the three days of closure. The Belfrey also make it clear that they are pleased to be working with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowens [sic].

After a much discussed period of radio silence, Llewelyn-Bowen (singular) took himself to Twitter and suggested that it was time ‘for sleeves to be rolled up’. In fact the BBC news website quoted a spokesman for Mr Llewelyn-Bowen saying his involvement had been ‘purely creative’ and that the closure will allow the owners time to get things closer to the original ‘ravishing’ vision.

For the sake of the hundreds if not thousands of people who have already shelled out in advance to visit The Magical Journey, the organisers ought to get the thing sorted out. But in and amongst giving the Santas extra training and decorating the tepees, they might also want to consider reviewing the content on the website. Other than the (mainly negative) press reports and staged PR shots, it’s the only place people can turn to get information on what to expect.

This may sound like a last little bit of bah humbug being coughed up all over the starbursts of the attraction’s website but it was just this sort of mismatch between promise and reality that got Lapland New Forest into such serious trouble.

It might help if Llewelyn-Bowen cast his ‘undoubted artistic eye’ over the rampant hyperbole of The Magical Journey’s website, and capturing the winning sense of self-deprecation detectable in the comments of employees on the day of re-opening would be a good place to start. After all, it would be a pity if Llewelyn-Bowen’s close friend Father Christmas had to think twice about leaving Lapland ever again.


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The Serious Business of Stories

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of speaking to 180 fellow writers at the Professional Copywriters’ Network’s second conference. Terrific the conference was too, with a smart, friendly audience who didn’t throw things; a variety of insightful speakers not scared to express an opinion; smooth organisation, with no crashed laptops or cold tea; and a memorable venue in Haberdashers’ Hall, Smithfield. If you don’t know the PCN I recommend you drop by their lively website, and look out for details of the next conference.

My talk was on stories. Given that hardly anyone in our industry bothers to define their use of the term, I set out to answer the question what exactly is a story? Also, why are so many people in marketing and branding talking about stories (but failing to tell them)? And how can businesses and writers use story structure and techniques to communicate in more interesting and memorable ways?

Other speakers and talks included Rory Sutherland on behavioural economics (perhaps more accurately, behavioural psychology), or what copywriters have always known but have often found hard to explain; and Dr Jillian Ney on how social media measurement can help inspire effective writing. There were also packed break-out sessions led by the likes of Andy Maslen and Bill Hilton. And all of this was woven together into a coherent, well paced day by PCN founders Ben Locker and Tom Albrighton, the Fry and Laurie of 21st century copywriting.

Enough preamble. If you’d like to see my 30-minute talk you can watch the video here. I can promise you conflict, strong views, a horrendous piece of jargon and a nice photograph of Zippy and George from Rainbow. Videos of the other sessions can be seen here.

Le Carré gets to share stage with Tim Rich

Rather dull screen grab featuring a brilliant quote by le Carré.


Posted in Advertising, Brand, Business, Copy analysis, Corporate communications, Crisis communications, Education, Jargon, Reading, Storytelling, Tone of voice, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fourth World

Trieste by Jan MorrisA few weeks back my wife – Lesley Katon – and I were sitting up a hillside in Italy pondering what she might say to the friends due to gather at her 50th birthday party. She wanted to capture her feelings for them, and to define the character of the amazing variety of people she’s become close to over the years. A tough brief.

After dinner that night we went back to the books we were reading – me Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra, she Jan Morris’s Trieste. 30 minutes later Les suddenly exclaimed ‘This is it! It’s all about the Fourth World!’ And so she described how Morris, in portraying the people of Trieste – a city that has moved between countries and provided a home to global wanderers – had got to the essence of what she felt about her closest friends.

At the party Les read out the passage below, and it resonated with those in the room. I’m reproducing it here because I think it’s a wonderful piece of writing – full of rhythm and spirit – but also because I feel we could all do with a blast of universalism.

As I write, murderous extremists are beheading those they consider their enemy, and a government has just bombed a refugee camp. Closer to home, our government has withdrawn support for rescue boats in the Mediterranean, for fear that it will encourage more migrants to light out for the UK. Last weekend a government minister described some towns as being ‘swamped’ by immigrants and effectively ‘under siege’. And on Wednesday of this week, in the House of Commons, the leaders of our two main political parties spat the word ‘immigration’ at each other as if it were a term of abuse.

It’s true that in some towns in Britain there are serious frictions between long-term residents and recent arrivals. But the bitterness of the current political language seems a long way from the open-minded approach to otherness I see and hear on the streets of our cities and towns most days. There are incidents and idiots, there is prejudice and anxiety, but in general people seem to rub along pretty well.

Of course, people’s feelings about immigration depend on where they live; their own experiences and circumstances; their ideology, if they have one; and how much they believe that immigration is responsible for our economic woes, rather than the main parties’ inability to imagine and pursue material progress. For some, it’s easier to project blame onto someone ‘other’ than to deconstruct the complex systems that affect our lives, or unpick the collapse of the Left, or question why successive governments have failed to create the infrastructure needed to support a growing population. Isn’t it absurd to blame the least powerful in our society for the failure of the most powerful to create the foundations for growth?

But once again, despite the resounding drumbeat of anti-immigration politicking, I’m constantly struck by how cohesive our cities are. Most people seem less and less interested in a person’s colour or creed and more interested in what they believe, say and contribute. We can all think of exceptions, no doubt, but in my experience they really are the exception rather than the rule.

True to the spirit of Trieste, I’ve wandered, and so I’ll bring this piece back to Jan Morris (who certainly knew a few things about identity and prejudice). Her words portray a minority, but a minority that in spirit is open and inclusive. It is a love letter to what can unite us; perhaps even a glimpse of a future world without borders. Sometimes that seems a very long way off. A very, very long way off. Cynics would say it’s a hopeless idea. It’s certainly true that we will never get there if we always see difference as a threat, rather than something that can make us stronger and better.

From Trieste, by Jan Morris (Faber & Faber)

There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own.

They are the lordly ones! They come in all colours.

They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists.

They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor.

They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists.

They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding.

When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically.

They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean.

They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion, or political correctness.

They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it.

It is the nation of nowhere.



Posted in Authors, Books, Free speech, History, London, Politics, Reading, Relationships, Storytelling, Travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Response

Yes, no, definitely maybe – part 2

A banner at the Trafalgar Square rally in support of the Union

A banner at the Trafalgar Square rally in support of the Union

More excellent writing on Scottish independence has emerged since my post on Friday.

Two particularly well-wrought comment pieces in favour of a No vote both describe the intellectual journey of the author (apologies for employing the ‘journey’ metaphor there – must have been watching too many TV documentaries).

In Justine Brian’s Why I hope that Scotland votes ‘No’ she reveals that “over the past three years, I’ve become an ‘accidental Unionist’.” Quite an evolution for someone who was an ardent supporter of Irish freedom.

Justine  – who heads up the brilliant Debating Matters competition – attacks the fragmentary character of the Yes campaign, characterising its hardliners as:

A broad mix of everyone that’s fed up with the status-quo: those cynical about Westminster politics and politicians; those who think capitalism is unfair but doesn’t know what to do about it; those who used to be part of the Left but, disgruntled by defeats in the 80s, and disgusted by a society that doesn’t look as they wish it did, are quite happy to trash their own nation as a minor act of anti-Tory revenge, in the hope that they might be slightly bigger fishes is a much smaller pond.

As with the superb Kenan Malik article highlighted here, the powerful momentum of her analysis sweeps us towards a hard-hitting conclusion:

If we want to change the world, to reinvigorate a sense of agency, to reclaim politics from a detached political elite, we cannot do so through narrow identity politics. We need new ideas and an understanding of why the world looks the way it does, and we achieve this better together.

Debate figures large in author Ewan Morrison’s Yes: Why I Joined Yes And Why I Changed To No. It was what he describes as the cultish, brook no argument character of the Yesses that made him question whether he was on the right side.

 I realised there was no absolutely no debate within the Yes camp. Zero debate – the focus was instead on attacking the enemy and creating an impenetrable shell to protect the unquestionable entity. In its place was a kind of shopping list of desires that was being added to daily.

The atmosphere amongst the Yes campaigners he encountered reminded Ewan of his days within the SWP:

As a ‘Trot’ we were absolutely banned from talking about what the economy or country would be like ‘after the revolution’; to worry about it, speculate on it or raise questions or even practical suggestions was not permitted. We had to keep all talk of ‘after the revolution’ very vague because our primary goal was to get more people to join our organisation. I learned then that if you keep a promise of a better society utterly ambiguous it takes on power in the imagination of the listener.

He picks apart what the chaos of yesses hiding under the Yes banner will mean in an independent Scotland:

The dream will die as soon as the singular Yes gets voted and Scotland then turns into a battleground of repressed and competing Yesses. Once the recruitment machine has served it purpose it will collapse and the repressed questions will return with a vengeance.

It’s not proved easy to find great writing for the Yes camp, which has surprised me. There’s been little to match Jamie Jauncey’s rhetoric, as discussed here. Perhaps that’s my prejudice in the matter showing itself – I’m a universalist, so I want to see fewer borders and greater common cause, not atomisation. That’s why I particularly enjoyed John Simmons’ recent post on writers and connections – A state of interdependence – and his powerful deployment of John Donne’s No man is an island entire of itself.

But I did find one more notable Yes piece. I disagree with just about everything Russell Wardrop argues for in The Aye Road, but I enjoyed every word. It’s a punchy, ruffian of a piece, somewhere between a transcript from a heated TV discussion and a speech to a mixed crowd at a referendum debate held on a hot Friday night in a distillery. It had me smiling all the way through. Here’s a gobbet:

I’m taking the Aye road. Since the massacre at Kelvingrove I have been looking for evidence this precious Union is worth the candle; concrete proposals the poor cannon-fodder of No could posit with poise; one or two reasons to be cheerful, not three.

I envy anyone who has had certainty this past while and I can groove to a narrow Naw if that’s the will of my fellow voters. In Mibby Aye, Mibby Naw I said I might bite yer hand off for 49% for Yes because that could be the best of both worlds. I no longer believe this and reasons for me to cast Naw vamoosed with my trust in Better Together.

And finally, the London Loves Scotland rally in Trafalgar Square last night was also a warm spirited affair, but a touch refined – more Laphroaig than Bell’s. I’ve never been to such a polite public gathering. Two animated women near me chanted ‘Please say no! Please don’t go!’, which sounded like a well-mannered lyric by Noel Coward.

On stage, Dan Snow set the historical context brilliantly, Al Murray made us laugh, Jenny Colgan read a poem about what the United Kingdom means to her, Eddie Izzard was wry and imploring and beautifully manicured, and then – against my expectations – Bob Geldof delivered a moving, progressive speech big on universalism and democracy. We also had a rousing recital of Auden’s cross-border epic Night Mail.

And that seems like a fair point on which to end this two-parter. If you know of other writing of merit please tweet me @66000mph. Now we move towards the time of last-minute interviews, speeches and soundbites – short-form punches to the other side’s nose, perhaps even a poetic line or two that voters will carry in their hearts to the voting booth. The election draws close, the result just a few days away. To recast some of Auden’s words, All Scotland waits for her.


PS Just seen Strategies to save the Union by Rishi Dastidar: don’t share the sentiments but love the style.

Posted in Campaigning, Free speech, London, Tone of voice, Vocabulary, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yes, no, definitely maybe

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Street art echoing this author’s sentiment on the matter.

The battle for and against Scottish independence is inspiring some fine writing. You would have to go a long way to find a more thoughtful, subtly reasoned essay than Kenan Malik’s Scottish Independence – from what, for what?. He leads us with great care to a powerful conclusion:

The challenge we face is to build new social mechanisms that can overcome the fragmentary character of contemporary politics, reverse the replacement of broader political and cultural identities with more narrow, parochial ones, confront the shift from the politics of ideology to the politics of identity. Scottish independence will not help achieve any of this. In fact, it will only exacerbate those very problems.

On the other hand, writer Jamie Jauncey has produced a remarkable piece of warm, rhetorical writing that gently guides the reader towards voting Yes. A letter to the undecided is beautifully crafted, its evocative and touching language powered by smart persuasive techniques. It begins:

Dear Friend

I’m writing this on a spellbinding early Indian summer’s morning in Perthshire. The mist has burnt off and the sky is cloudless. The trees and bracken are just starting to turn. The hills are within touching distance. All is still and clear. Or is it … ?

Only the most hard-hearted of Unionists would fail to read on.

Writing in The Telegraph, Rory Bremner does a good impression of someone who feels unable to leave the middle ground, although in his piece he tells us that he has finally decided to vote No. The article has neither the depth of consideration of Kenan’s essay nor the emotional power of Jamie’s letter, but there are some good gags along the way:

“I see and feel the appeal of independence to the heart, and have entertained the vision of a Nordic social democracy, with progressive politics, Scandinavian lifestyle and exciting crime dramas (“Herr Taggart, there’s been a mørder ”).”

Better still is this anecdote, used to illustrate that what many people in Scotland really want is to be able to choose their country’s status for themselves:

Some years ago, British Rail removed kippers from the menu on the London-Brighton line. A campaign sprang up to bring them back, and Laurence Olivier was its patron. BR relented, and the following week, Lord Olivier was greeted on the train by the steward. “Ah! Lord Olivier! I expect you’ll be having the kippers?” “No, dear boy,” he replied, “I’ll have bacon and eggs.” “But… I thought you wanted kippers?” said the steward. “No, no, dear boy,” replied Lord Olivier. “What I wanted was the choice.”

A lovely story, cleverly deployed. No doubt there will be plenty more narrative expertise applied to the issues before the people of Scotland get to exercise their right to choose.


Posted in Campaigning, Copy analysis, Crisis communications, History, Storytelling, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A letter from Michael Wolff

This letter from Michael Wolff was originally commissioned by Kyoorius magazine in Mumbai. Michael contemplates the machinations of the design business, collaboration, humility, and the pitfalls of vanity.


Dear Reader,

I’m starting with an apology. I promised to write you an autobiographical letter about the things and images that have inspired me and still inspire me in what I do. But writing this has overwhelmed me and I’m still working on it for you. Please be patient with me.


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At the same time as writing the letter I promised, I’ve been distracted by a quote. It’s a quote that’s caused me to reflect and think. It relates to our behavior as designers and in particular to the magazines that serve our business.

I think you know by now that I’ve always thrived on distractions.

I don’t always arrive at destinations that I intend to reach. I let distractions take me on extraordinary journeys. I think not knowing where you’ll arrive is the essence of creativity. If you already know you won’t be surprised by the magic of what you can create. I hope you’ll find these reflections useful, and that maybe they’ll become thoughts you’ll want to reflect on too.


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Finding this distracting and insightful quote was a surprise. I wish I’d seen it many years ago. It was by a man called Norman Vincent Peale. He was born in the USA during 1898 and died twenty years ago. I’d never heard of him. He was best known for being the champion of ‘the power of positive thinking’. I think he coined the phrase.

He said many inspirational things including this. “The way to happiness: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, expect little, give much. Scatter sunshine, forget self, think of others. Try this for a week and you’ll be surprised.”

But the quote that’s caused me to stop in my tracks was this:


“The trouble with most of us

is that we’d rather be ruined by praise

than saved by criticism.”


I’ve always valued criticism. I’ve never done flawless work. Criticism is nourishment. It’s the sharpener without which our blades grow blunt.

But I think craving praise, the way it seems to me that we often do, is ruinous. I think many designers are easily seduced into self-adulation. We seem to be too easily herded into mutual admiration, ceremonies and awards that focus entirely on praise.  How many doctors compete for ‘the annual kidney transplant of the year’ awards? Yes, the Nobel Prize gives honour to work of great distinction. But for an ad or a piece of graphic design, come on.


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It seems as if awards or being published in a magazine have come to be the most important measure of the quality of a designer’s work – less banal than “was it effective”, “did it sell more stuff” or “how much money did we make out of this client”.

Despite those feelings, “Congratulations” has always been the first thing I want to say to anyone whose work is honoured by winning an award. Of course it’s an achievement to win recognition for the quality of your work from juries or judges made up of people whose work you may admire.

In the past I was always excited to have my work and my name included with respect, and sometimes even envy, in any selection of excellence by my peers. It always felt like having climbed to some sort of summit – my head clearly seen above the sea of normality. But, and there’s always a ‘but’ for me, the chosen work always had flaws – flaws that taunted me and always insisted on being noticed. They still taunt me today.




I don’t think flawless work exists any more than flawless people. In life – with a little humility – there’s always the possibility of addressing flaws and correcting them. With work, it’s usually too late. By the time you see the flaws, the work’s been produced. Even a car as sublime as the Citroen DS had flaws, and like every other car, or ad, or brand identity or any piece of work from the world of design, flaws are usually there.


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Occasionally something like the Red Cross appears – more or less flawless. Or a poster by a ‘master’, a timeless piece of architecture, a fantastic ad, a breath-taking product or a perfect piece of writing by a great copywriter. These iconic pieces are rare. Why so, when there are so many brilliant and talented people in our wide world of design?

I think there are two main reasons. The first is vanity – a deadly state of mind that settles for substituting a craving for credit and recognition for simply doing a service. That’s a personal issue. Most people can recognise when they’re drinking from the intoxicating chalice of recognition.

The second reason is more serious and profound. I think it’s a flaw in how the design industry has expanded. The design industry has slid relatively unnoticed into the clothes of mediocre and conventional business. Wanting recognition and wealth has been the basis for this evolution.

As the design business was born out of the design profession, we believed that being like our clients and being reasonable would somehow validate our efforts and we would glide into business life like lawyers and management consultants. What happened then was that we were swept up into the world of process, deadlines and project management. Serious time for thought, reflection and criticism was eroded and design became a day-rate affair.

In the early days of Wolff Olins we were free to introduce six-week holidays to encourage an input mentality over an entirely output one and an appetite for curiosity beyond just reading magazines, to balance what was sometimes an atmosphere of stressed output. We encouraged someone to take a three-year course in anthropology, on full pay, so that through this person’s evolution we too would learn more about how people behave in groups.

We collaborated with writers because an obsession with the visual aspects of design often ignored the power of language. Almost endless criticism was not seen as disloyalty, time wasting or sabotage, it was integral to honing a good solution. And it took time, because it often meant, ‘throw it out and start again’.


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We all know that creativity can take minutes, even seconds, and it can take weeks and months. A moment of insight turned into a creative idea can change the world. Months of mediocre process can produce the Emperor’s new clothes – and it often does. Project management and pressure to deliver in a conventional, unquestioned time frame, can often blind us to opportunities we need to see.

How can we reclaim the creative, artistic, expressive, original and intuitive initiatives that define us as designers, from the grinding, boring, greedy and uninspiring businesses that are subsuming so many of us? Just as with energy and how we use it, and architecture and how we live in it, and money and how we think of it and use it, we always have to start all over again. A maxim of mine is ‘Always be starting’.

Although awards deserve congratulations, don’t be seduced by them into thinking everything is fine and rosy. It isn’t. The world needs our insights, our imagination, our thinking and our inspiration to a higher purpose for our clients more that it ever did. Too often, we’re still more pre-occupied with useful things for ourselves – recognition, growing our companies and gaining material wealth – than useful things for the world we live in.


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Hopefully this worn out old paradigm is dying.
Long live a new and more fruitful one.


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This letter is also published in Mike Dempsey’s Graphic Journey and you can read more from Michael Wolff here.





Posted in Advertising, Art, Authors, Brand, Business, Corporate communications, Design, Education, History, London, Marketing, Media, Relationships, Tone of voice, Typography, Writing | 1 Response

26 Words

Vinca – 26 WordsLast year writing organisation 26 and lettering artists’ group Letter Exchange collaborated on an exhibition. 26 Words paired writers with visual artists, setting them a brief designed to explore the visual and verbal representation of language. First, each creative pair was asked to select a word to represent a particular letter of the alphabet. They were required to do this by inserting a knife into the relevant section of a dictionary, which added a touch of fortune to proceedings (and ensured there was no debate over which word to choose).

I was paired with James Salisbury, an accomplished lettering artist who often works with limestone, slate, paper, brick, steel and glass. Given the letter ‘V’, the word selected for us by the dagger of fate was ‘Vinca’, which is a periwinkle. The road from dictionary to exhibited work took us through misunderstanding, bloody history, the birth of a new verse form, extraordinarily precise letter sculpting, experiments with glass and long hours of work in dangerous air. We describe what happened, and set out the thinking behind our piece, in a short diary, below.

From random selections to choosing to create a strict Vinca verse form, this project was brought to life through the liberation of constraints. This is something John Simmons has long appreciated and talked about (and he was one of the initiators of this project). The toughest brief is the open brief, partly because it often seems to close down your imagination. Set limits and the mind works harder in search of connections. Like a plant crawling across dark ground in search of light.

One observation I failed to make in the diary: proofreading words to be sculpted wracks your nerves. There are no tracked changes when you’re working in stone.

26 Words bookAll in all, I’m rather late in covering this project as it launched last year, but I’m delighted to say it continues to tour the UK and the Continent. The show is currently in Bruges and will visit Snape, Hereford and Cambridge before the year is out. It may go on from there. But you can see and read about the pieces online over here (make sure you read Neil Baker and Mark Noad’s simply stunning ‘Hearse’). There’s also a lovely catalogue.

In the meantime, here’s the story behind ‘Vinca’. And the poem is reproduced below too.


The selection of ‘Vinca’ didn’t overwhelm me with creative joy, but the word began to bloom as I unearthed its etymology and history. Vinca is a flower that we know better as the periwinkle. Verbally, the Latin root takes us to ‘bind, fetter’, perhaps because the plant grips the ground as it spreads. As a species it’s invasive but pretty and useful. Today alkaloids are extracted from it for use in chemotherapy, but its healing properties have been recognised for years. In Germany it was considered by some to give immortality. There again, in Italy it might decorate the bier of a dead child. In England, garlands of periwinkles were sometimes placed on the head of a despised political prisoner en route to prison or execution – an ironic crown. It continues to be used to treat haemorrhages. So, we had something to work with and I was looking forward to meeting James.


It proved difficult to get together. Finally we arranged to rendezvous in the Sherlock Holmes pub near Charing Cross. I had a rough idea of what Tim looked like, but after 45 minutes no one fitting his appearance had arrived. Appropriately enough given the pub, I had to solve the mystery and try to find him in the crowd. This proved far from elementary. Then my phone went and it was Tim. He was sure we were due to be meeting the following week. A shaky start to a creative collaboration.


At last, our paths crossed over a beer in Kennington. That meeting was all about sharing ideas, but also sharing something of ourselves and how we work. I was struck by the solidity and significance of what James produces – careful, thoughtful, hand-carved stone pieces that mark a place, an event, a life. Here we were at the opposite end of our creative process, where thoughts and words are quick and malleable and disposable. He sketched as we spoke, and something lovely started to take shape when he illustrated each of the five letters of our word as standalone elements. I pointed out that our periwinkle has five petals. And then there’s the V of Vinca, of course…


We agreed that at each stage we would share our work with the other and only move forward once we were of one mind. From my side, I didn’t want to spend days cutting letters for a work that meant nothing to me. I awaited Tim’s draft with some anxiety.


I felt the piece should be a story. I particularly wanted it to capture the potential for a medicine to free someone from the captivity of their injury or illness. Also, the brutality of the prisoners’ garland had stayed with me. When they arrived, the words came out unexpectedly bloody, with a life and death of their own. It’s written in what I now call Vinca form – a prose poem with five verses of five lines of five words. Each verse starts with its corresponding letter from ‘Vinca’.


The written piece is complex and dark. I felt I could certainly work with these words. Tim had picked up on my sketches of the versals and I started to develop them and the lines that follow. There’s no specific period in the piece, but the reference to All Hallows church – by the Tower of London – took my thoughts back to its founding years around the seventh century. I found myself drawing softly rounded uncials in a tightly packed form. I felt that copper might make a good material for the versals. And I thought it would be interesting to introduce glass into the piece but wasn’t sure how.


I had two main concerns about the lettering work. First, it should reflect the atmosphere of the piece without feeling like a pastiche of a historical period. Second, it had to be readable. The sketches-in-progress James sent were intriguing – almost like ancient musical notation. We pressed on.


Working with glass artist Lizzie Davison, I embedded the copper versal letters in two sheets of glass. For the body of the piece, I used York stone. This gives a soft and gritty look and feel, as if it’s already been worn by the passing years. The Vinca literary form is lovely but required a Herculean effort, each verse taking about eight hours. It’s ironic that, given the health properties of our subject, I had to wear a medical mask while carving. The silica in the stone is dangerous if you breathe it in.


I’m writing these final words on a Mac in a clean, quiet office while James the stone surgeon is in his dusty workshop, pushing on through the tiredness to chisel and chip our shared piece into permanent form. He told me he started from the bottom, so he began with a line about immortality and it probably now feels even longer than eternity since he began. The deadline keeps him working through the nights. At project’s end we will have a remarkable piece. We have no idea where the work will live or how people will feel about it, but I sense it may end up leading an interesting life.




Verses and prayers failed to

calm the high tide of

blood washing across his boneyard

of a chest. He panted

hard, like a trapped fox.


Insolent traitor, the guards said,

but we knew that the

life pulsing from those wounds

carried with it our hope

of liberation from kingly terror.


No bandage could seal his

gashed flesh, so we went

to the scented ground by

All Hallows to find the

Madonna-blue blossom called Salvation.


Cutting each head from the

limbs that bound flower to

earth, we made a tonic

from the petals and hurried

back to heal the prisoner.


A laughing sentry lifted our

friend’s shoulders and poured the

solution into his unblinking eyes.

Flower of death! he shouted.

Flower of immortality, we thought.


Posted in 26, Art, Design, Editing, History, London, Poetry, Storytelling, Typography, Vocabulary, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Me, you and the goats

What can copywriters learn from behavioural economics? Can social media measurement improve the way we write? Should writers turn to neuroscience to better understand what’s going in readers’ minds? What exactly is tone of voice? How do you write memorable strap lines? Could you make more money as a writer? Does storytelling really have a powerful role to play in business? Are questions an effective way to start a piece?

These issues and many more will be discussed at the Professional Copywriters’ Network annual conference in September. This is a rare chance for all sorts of commercial writers to gather, learn, debate and make connections. I’ll be there, talking about stories and listening to the other speakers. They include the wonderful raconteur, e-cigarette guerilla and Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland; and Dr Jillian Ney, the first Doctor of Social Media in the UK and chief executive of consultancy Disruptive Insight. There’s also a great line up of experts taking training sessions.

Here are a few more words on my talk:

Almost every business now claims it has a story. And terms such as ‘brand storytelling’ and ‘corporate narrative’ have become commonplace in the communications industry.

But, in truth, relatively few people really understand what makes a story a story. And the ‘stories’ shared by most businesses and agencies just aren’t that interesting, memorable or inspiring.

Tim Rich will look at what makes a story, why stories can be so valuable, and how to overcome client anxieties about telling a great story. He will also consider how storytelling can help writers to promote their own business.

Haberdashers' Coat of ArmsIf all this sounds interesting, come and join us at the lovely Haberdashers’ Hall in the City of London on the 26th September. While we’re there we can try to find a haberdasher and get them to tell us the story behind the Company’s punchy strap line and extraordinary coat of arms, with its:

‘two naked arms embowed holding a laurel wreath all proper, on either side a goat of India argent flecked gules and membered Or’.


PS If you haven’t heard Rory Sutherland speak, enjoy his talk for TED in Athens.

Professional Copywriters' Network

Posted in Brand, Business, London, Storytelling, Tone of voice, Writing | Tagged | 3 Responses

First principle

Economist Designated Thinker‘Digital first’.

It’s such a harmless phrase, almost inoffensive in its bland yet bald stating of what is an obvious truth.

Except it’s not – not harmless, and not even necessarily a truth, obvious or otherwise.

Start with a simple experiment: you would not say ‘Electricity first’ as being the aim for your agency or brand, would you? And yet you don’t get to be digital first without the presence of a current. Does that not therefore make electricity more important?

Of course not. And yet, many of us working in marketing and communications persist in this notion that ‘digital’ is a thing that in some way should be venerated above all other things.

Edward Boches for one. He apparently thinks that agencies should:

Think digital experience first, tv and messages second.

That he can say this without possibly stopping to think that might be as important to define the messages that go into a digital experience makes me worry for the state of marketing education in the US, but that’s for another day.

Anyway, such shallowness was enough to prompt the following observations, naturally enough spewed out on Twitter:

- Honestly, some of the stuff I see extolling ‘digital first’ as a mindset make me want to rend my garments, and wail.

- Someone’s just said, ‘think digital first, TV second’. What, even if your brief is for a telly ad?

- I thought the point was for the idea to be brilliant, and then you bring it to life in the best media possible for it.

- Can you imagine Michelangelo being told, ‘yeah, all very well about that ceiling, but where’s the digital bit?’

- The main thing to remember is that it is very rare that new media ever fully kills old media. Both adapt, change in reaction to each other.

- Does no-one read McLuhan any more? This stuff is 50 years old. It’s not hard. Really, it’s not.

And yes, I am aware that I am tilting at windmills here. But this post by Dave Trott about the late David Abbott makes the point far more eloquently than I ever could. The famous poster campaign for The Economist actually started as a conversation about a TV brief. But instead of thinking medium first, the idea won out.

The point is not that we should be doing digital first, or digital only, or half analogue, half digital or whatever. It’s that we should be aware that media ‘technologies’ – and yes that means paper, as much as it means anything mostly composed of bits – should always be subservient to the ideas and the messages we want to put in them, and that we should work with their affordances to make the best things we can.

That should be the first thing to remember – always.

Rishi is a Senior Writer at RAPP and a director of 26. He has worked as a writer and brand strategist both within agencies and client-side. He blogs at Being Beta  and tweets @BetaRish.

Posted in Advertising, Brand, Design, Digital, Internet, Marketing, Media, Writing | 1 Response