Rock Paper Scissors


To mark William Burroughs’ 100th birthday (snippets of him live on in all of us) here’s a bunch of vids.

WB and Alan Ginsberg

A Man Within

WB, Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger

CIA Assassin?

WB and Debbie Harry

Thanksgiving prayer

WB and Frank Zappa

William Burroughs photographs

William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac on Sofa

Love your enemies

WB and J G Ballard

Shotgun paintings

WB and David Bowie

Dr Benway operates

WB and Francis Bacon

The Threepenny Opera

WB and Brion Gysin

Destroy all rational thought

WB andf Susan Sontag


William Burroughs and Jean Michel Basquiat


WB and Patti Smith

Cut-Up Balloons in Black & White

WB and Tom Waits

Commissioner of Sewers

WB and Joe Strummer

Talking about writing and art

WB and Madonna

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01 Headmaster's door


I spent my schooldays staring the glass out of the windows. The poverty of expectation suffocated aspiration. The punitive discipline blunted everything about us. Teachers yawned their way through lessons. I had been imprisoned for a crime I had not committed. I hid from bullies and sports masters in music and art rooms, inventing Utopias and plotting escapes.


As I sat under the apple tree

A birdy sent his love to me

And as I wiped it from my eye

I said, Thank goodness, cows can’t fly


Every generation of schoolchildren is a law unto themselves. They create exclusion and inclusion zones that define their place in history. Membership of cliques is determined by gender, race, class, pop, fads, haircuts, shoes, vocabulary, inflection, scatology, and a host of subliminal attributes. Driven by explosions of hormones, the capricious attraction of these tribes is compelling.


Adam and Eve and Pinch Me

Went down to the sea to bathe

Adam and Eve were drowned

Who do you think was saved?


Published in 1959, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren was the first comprehensive survey of juvenile vernacular in the British Isles and beyond. Iona and Peter Opie compiled this beguiling anthology from centuries of oral history, and it tracked the transition of a rural society to an industrial nation. The book is an anthropological tombola of fruity Anglo Saxon, clothed in the naivety of a Look At Life documentary.


Tell tale tit

Your tongue shall be split

And every dog in Liverpool

Shall have a little bit


Children are fragile and impressionable. The purpose of feral language is to carve out a position for the individual and sweet-talk peer groups. To be liked, trusted and picked for the team is bliss. To be ostracised and ridiculed is devastating.


Mickey Mouse was in a house

Wondering what to do

So he scratched his bum-tiddly-um-pum-pum



Children are not afraid of language. Words are mercurial playthings for expressing needs, feelings and ideas. Academia forces their verbal gymnastics and glorious fantasies into blinkers. Insecurity about what is ‘correct and incorrect’ instils a fear of the written word, which many adults drag around with them through life. However, vocal rebellion against formalised language has spawned an exhilarating lexicon of banter, jeers, torments and quips.


Splishy splashy custard, dead dog’s eyes

All mixed up with green snot pies,

Spread with stinky-pooh nice and thick

Swallow it down with a bucket of sick.


Guy Tarrant is an artist and teacher whose work explores authorship and behaviours. Confiscation Cabinets at the V&A Museum of Childhood features 150 objects impounded in schools over a 15-year period. School is the first great leveller. Some pupils kick against it. Others make the best of it. Few are liberated by it. Every treasure in this collection represents a struggle for identity and fizzes with the frisson of being found out. Disruptive behaviour is a cry for love. Ownership of – or just association with – something forbidden can do wonders for self-esteem.

02 Selection with gonk

Like the phrases in Lore and Language, items in the exhibition have been cannibalised to make a statement about the messenger and an impression on the receiver: erasers are scratched into love tokens, a fake credit card is drawn on a scrap of cardboard, stay thin with paper diet chips, school stationary is up-cycled into playing cards, pencils are chewed into totem poles. But they also have a therapeutic function as comfort blankets and diversions for children who feel alienated, frustrated and bored out of their minds.

03 Selection with axe

Young blades at Shakespeare’s grammar school cherished their stilettos. Urchins in Dickensian schools brandished knuckle-dusters. Playground thugs in the 1950s fondled flick-knives in drainpipe trouser pockets. Bart Simpson loves his slingshots. The weapons in Confiscation Cabinets are home-made boys’ toys as quaint as they are chilling: a tennis ball incendiary bomb, a tube train hanging strap, a breath freshener flame thrower, a table leg cosh, an axe with splintered handle and slate chopper, a Sellotape finger trap. Violence and neglect are so ubiquitous in so many children’s lives, is it any wonder they defend themselves with aggression?

04 Rubber band balls

Mobile phones are confusing confiscation boundaries. Young people have intravenous relationships with their phones, and over protective parents regard them as umbilical chords. Some schools have banned phones outright, and seen reductions in teacher baiting, cyber-bullying, muggings, porn surfing, and malevolent online postings. Other schools have discovered that prohibition is counter-productive, and encourage students to use the computing power of phones for interactive learning in the classroom and to self-regulate recreational activity.

05 Selection with sunglasses and phone

The Channel 4 series Educating Yorkshire provides a dramatic insight into a state secondary school. The warm, frank and boisterous relationships teachers develop with students are hugely supportive and challenge dissent and apathy. The aim of the school is to produce ‘happy’ citizens. Some children require months of intensive help before they begin to believe in themselves. The agony and the ecstasy of staff, pupils and parents overcoming difficulties is powerful stuff, but are the levels of conflict, stress and heartache in our schools inevitable?

06 Pencils

Children are insatiably curious and have an instinctive appetite for learning. The talented will always fly, but so many kids are processed, chewed up, and spat out by the system. I work with many ‘grown-ups’ who have never fulfilled their potential, or even dared to live their dreams. The villain of the piece is our approach to education and the sclerotic supporting infrastructure. The blueprint – years of subject-led cramming tested by an exam at the end – was created by 19th century academics as a preparation for university. But in those olden days when the world moved at the speed of a horse, people were chained to their vocations.

07 Control button

The digital age moves at the speed of light. We need to rethink what intelligence is and the value of knowledge. In these times of diversity, pluralism, personalisation and frenzied innovation, education is still hamstrung by conformity and standardisation. Education should encourage a spirit of iconoclasm – not compliance. Instead of educating children for certainty, let’s inspire them to become fluent in volatility and pursue lifelong learning. We have no idea what could be lurking inside the head of a kid who has been exposed to virtual reality, nano-technology, and mobile communications from conception. We should set teachers free from clunky government directives and examination targets, to become provocateurs, catalysts and mentors.

08 Bent coppers

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently reported that England is ranked 22nd out of 24 western countries for literacy, and 21st for numeracy. 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland have the numeracy levels of a 10-year-old. 22% of 16 to 19 year olds are functionally innumerate. 17% are illiterate. One-in-five pupils drops out at 16. The reaction of the establishment has been predictably anal, proposing even more back-to-basics teaching and tests.

09 Friendship bracelet

This year a YouGov survey revealed that 32% of children have considered or attempted suicide by the age of 16. 29% of the respondents admitted self-harming. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) estimates that 80,000 children in the UK suffer from severe depression, and 54% cite stress at school as the main cause. Teachers’ worries about implementing syllabus and school inspections impacts on students. The demands of social media, fear of failure, anxieties about employment, dealing with broken homes – added to the maelstrom of adolescence is tough and many young people lack the emotional resilience to cope.

10 Chatterbox

Every government introduces the Big New Idea to solve the education riddle, but most children are still extruded through the same old die. The UK’s most successful national wealth-creating characteristics spring from illogical, irrational and counterintuitive collisions of skills and entrepreneurialism. Teaching should not be about stuffing children’s heads with information, but liberating their imaginations. Children are voraciously creative but narrow minded target-driven education irons it out of them. Supposing every subject was integrated through innovation, ingenuity, creativity and play. This approach could sit above all specialisations and shape the National Curriculum. The Arts have gone through a thousand cuts; trivialised and marginalised. But music is massive part of youth culture, and taught holistically it could weave amazing learning curves through maths, science, physics, aesthetics, history, politics, psychology, semiotics, relationships, business, biology, anthropology, design & technology and foreign languages.


Albert Einstein loathed school. He found it dull, mechanical, inflexible, and felt intimidated by the pedantic teaching and rigid discipline. He was a disruptive, disobedient, anti-social, tongue-tied student who failed test after test. His violin was confiscated because he mucked about in class. Einstein developed a technique he called fanatical freethinking (that’s day dreaming to you and me) and went on voyages into his imagination. He was hounded by Jew haters, written off by professors, and finally expelled for forging sick notes. The most fulfilling part of his education happened after school through scientists, mathematicians and physicists who introduced him to new experiences. On receiving the Nobel Prize Einstein said that the driving forces behind his intuitive leaps of intellect were music and sailing.

11 Table underside

So let’s consign disobedient and targets and school uniform and delivery mechanism and standardisation and behave and PowerPoint and drop out and centralised and expel and normal and detention and grades to the waste bin, and replace SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP with STAND UP AND EXPLODE.

Thanks to Guy for permission to use his images. Confiscation Cabinets continues at the V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green until June 1st 2014


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At 66000mph

Reading-and-WritingSome pieces from us that you may have missed:

Attention span

Far from being helpless victims of technology-driven dumbing-down, we are actively paying attention in all sorts of new and productive ways.

Calisthenics for the brain

The act of writing can help us to explore new ideas, clarify what we know and don’t know, and test the mettle of our views.

Turned out nice again

Tom on the language installation he created for the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Neighbourhood.

Plain wrong

There’s a lot of rot talked about Plain English. Of course it’s good to counter the obfusc and pretentious with clarity and good sense, but who wants to sound plain?


Rules are imposed by people who want to control other people. Writing is not about rules but communicating ideas.

Typographical salvage

Tim discovers a treasure trove of typographica in London’s Leonard Street.

Noisy perfection

Tom gets close to Jane Austen in the Bodleian.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

On the difficult art of apologising when you are a large corporate organisation.

Thunder of assent

Churchill and his rhetoric, considered by Patrick.

From the heart

On branding, authenticity and Wally Olins.

Leaders and speechwriters

Brian reviews ‘Paddy Ashdown and Max Atkinson in Conversation’.

Home from home

A collaborative poem is giving a new property development character.

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Why stories matter

Other stories photo by Tim Rich

The Association for Qualitative Research recently asked me to write a piece on storytelling in business for its InDepth magazine. That issue is out now, and it’s worth tracking down a copy (over here) because it also contains excellent articles on storytelling by, amongst others, the estimable Martin Lee of Acacia Avenue. You can read my contribution below. This piece was also published in Market Leader magazine Quarter 1 2014, published by Warc in association with the Marketing Society. 

Walking up London’s Regent Street the other day, I noticed a distant sign saying & Other Stories. At first I thought it might be for a new chain of bookshops – what an optimist! A few steps later I saw that the shop’s windows were full of dresses, jumpers and knickers. A smaller sign inside read: ‘Personal style tells a story’.

Being a business writer and communications consultant – and something of a narrative nerd – I went inside in the hope of finding some interesting story-led writing. I encountered plenty of colourful hyperbole but, alas, no narratives. Despite its name, and its website URL, nothing I read in & Other Stories was actually a story.

& Other Stories is not alone. Countless others are employing ‘story’ as a synonym for communication. But a story is a distinct form. There are different types of story, and many ways to tell a tale, but all stories have the same three-part process at their heart.

First, there must be something difficult or dangerous to overcome – a challenge, a threat, an obstacle, a mystery and so on.

Second, an individual or group of people must act decisively to address the challenge or difficulty.

Third, the world must be a changed place as a result of their actions.

In short; challenge, action, transformation.

Of course, the weft of a good story may well include many smaller challenges, along with diversions and prevarication. Ultimately, however, a narrative’s momentum must carry it from the before state – where the challenge looms large – to a changed world via human action.

Critically, if there isn’t something to oppose or resolve it isn’t a story.

The second part of the process – an individual or group taking decisive action – is key to how stories connect with people. While standard business communications often talk in impersonal ways about abstract subjects (commitments, systems, performance, corporate responsibility), a good story is usually about remarkable events happening to someone, and that someone doing something tangible in response. It’s personal, active and vivid. Compelling stories are also generally grounded in a strong sense of both place and time. Here’s the opening line of Dante’s The Inferno, in The Divine Comedy:

Midway upon the journey of life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward path had been lost.

The time, place, characters and events of a story seem to take us closer to lived experience than abstracted communications such as reports, statements and the like. In his book Things That Make Us Smart psychologist and industrial designer Don Norman captured this well when he said:

Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion.

Glenlivet brand film by Aesop. Director Matthias Hoene. Production by Rushes CG Commercials.

Glenlivet brand film by Aesop. Director Matthias Hoene. Production by Rushes CG Commercials.

So much for theory, what does a brand story sound like? Here’s an example. The Glenlivet is the world’s second biggest selling single malt brand. But rather than focus on claims about popularity, the brand film on its website goes back to the drama of the product’s creation. This is how the voiceover begins:

It all started in the upper reaches of Glenlivet.

Its remoteness allowed smugglers to run their stills slowly to produce a legendary smooth whisky.

It was demanded by King George IV, who had heard of an illicit dram so smooth he had to taste it himself.

It took a gritty, single-minded Speyside farmer called George Smith to have the courage to set up a distillery to capture its character.

It was defended on more than one occasion…

And so it unfolds, describing ‘heroic responses’ in the face of tribulation while underlining the brand promise of ‘smoothness’. It demonstrates how the energy of a story is drawn from its point of opposition – the challenge, the difficulty. Which is why memorable business stories often involve an opponent (think Virgin versus BA, or Apple versus a complacent tech industry).

22936f891739004cc4eee726c818303992829316Here’s another example. In this founders’ story the challenge is whether the people involved should risk giving up their jobs:

We started innocent in 1999 after selling our smoothies at a music festival. We put up a big sign asking people if they thought we should give up our jobs to make smoothies, and put a bin saying ‘Yes’ and a bin saying ‘No’ in front of the stall. Then we got people to vote with their empties. At the end of the weekend, the ‘Yes’ bin was full, so we resigned from our jobs the next day and got cracking.

This lovely anecdote, from Innocent Drinks, has several qualities that make for a powerful story: something is at stake; people act; there’s a striking image of a bin full of yeses. In other hands it might have been reduced to a statement declaring:

From day one we’ve been a customer-centric food and beverage company producing brands that match people’s lifestyles.

Stories can play a particularly important role during tough times. For example, back in 2002 the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson faced an unexpected and rapid market downturn. Working with David Stocks at SAS London and brand consultant Leonard Rau, we advised the somewhat introverted leadership team to present a powerful, narrative-led argument to shareholders through its high profile Business Review. The front cover declared:

2002 was tough.

Our customers bought less equipment, competition increased, the roll-out of 3G was slow, and the market was difficult to predict.

Some observers see no end to these difficulties.

We take a different view.

Ericsson 2002

Writing by Tim Rich. Design by SAS London.

The story continued throughout the review. This straight-talking approach resonated with readers, who appreciated the candour, the company’s active response and the promise of a brighter future. Challenge, action, transformation.

It’s hardly surprising that more and more businesses are drawn by the power of stories. The problem is that relatively few have a culture that fits well with the direct, open nature of a story-based approach. Here are some of the obstacles to narrative I’ve encountered:

• We don’t want to focus on problems, weaknesses or issues.

• We would never get this past the lawyers.

• We’re concerned that our story will be subverted by competitors/opponents/journalists.

• We’re not sure that emotions are appropriate in a business communication.

• We’re not clear what our story is.

• No-one reads any more, do they?

Stories aren’t always the right way to communicate, but to reject them wholesale is timid, especially if bland corporate-speak holds sway. It’s simply not good enough for a company facing an existential threat to say ‘It has been a challenging period’, or to rue ‘a difficult environment’. Contrast those evasive phrases with these words from Warren Buffett, in the 2005 Berkshire Hathaway annual report:

Long ago, Mark Twain said: “A man who tries to carry a cat home by its tail will learn a lesson that can be learned in no other way.” If Twain were around now, he might try winding up a derivatives business. After a few days, he would opt for cats.

Timid communicators often search for a safe harbour in Plain English. This is a mistake. Information-led content should be clear, of course, but in no other area of business activity do we aspire to be only as good as our competitors. Design briefs never say ‘make us look exactly the same as everyone else’. Plain English is communications as compliance rather than competitive advantage. More on that here.

Of course, this cultural issue of timidity goes deeper than communication. There’s a lack of philosophical steel at the top of many companies. When was the last time you saw a truly inspiring example of a business leader making the case for what their company does and why they do it? Meanwhile, The Edelman Trust Barometer 2013 perception survey reports that levels of trust in business and business leaders have risen slightly since 2012, but remain lamentably low. And this is by no means a new issue. The words of journalist Euan Ferguson, writing in the Observer back in 2005, still resound:

Management, its transparent duplicity of language and shallowness of soul and thorough lack of wit, is not just disliked today in Britain, it’s quite actively loathed.

In the face of cynicism, many companies appear to have internalised anti-business sentiment. Time and again the core purpose of shareholder-owned companies – to create value for investors – is shrouded in polite waffle and forgettable messages about its wider social contribution. Business is on the back foot.

Great stories rarely emerge from a timid culture. But as I said, I’m an optimist. I believe stories can help a company move from timidity to confidence – if the will is there at the top. Stories can help to define issues, set out actions and describe an alternative outcome. And, in my experience, meaningful stories stick with people longer than statements and claims.

Of course, whether a company uses narrative or not, its story is being told in all sorts of ways each day. From journalists to customers, campaigners, competitors, ex-employees – it’s never been easier for people to have their say. Compelling anecdotes get shared and amplified. The official story of a business or product lives in an increasingly contested space. Companies must learn to compete more effectively at the level of the word.

Tim Rich

Some other pieces on brands and story:

The book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is an excellent exploration of why great stories are so inspiring and memorable.

What is brand storytelling anyway? is a terrific post by writer Tom Albrighton, who gives brand storytelling a thorough going over.

Writer Nick Asbury looks at the strange story of story – highly recommended.

Writer Mike Reed has written a robust and useful analysis of what makes a story (and what doesn’t) in What’s the story?

Writers Robert Mills @robertmills and John Simmons @JNSim tweet regularly and insightfully about brand stories and storytelling. John blogs here and Robert here.

Posted in Advertising, Brand, Business, Design, Plain English, Storytelling, Tone of voice, Vocabulary, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Responses

The best pictures are on the radio


Alan Dein is fly-fishing the airwaves again with a 4th series of Don’t Log Off. His rod is Facebook, his line is Skype, his bait is an invitation - talk to me. The acoustic of the programme suggests we are tucked up in a midnight cupboard deep in the bowels of Broadcasting House. Slivers of music seep in and out like feelings that evaporate when we try to catch them. Having hooked a handful of random strangers, Alan tickles them with gently existential questions: Hello who are you? Where are you? What time is it with you? What have you been doing today?

The opening episode winkles out people yearning to escape; from political persecution, theocratic states, environmental disasters, oppressive families. Roger from Uganda is trying to build a new life with his girlfriend in Finland. J is a human rights activist pursued by Saudi Arabian persecutors. Brian from Idaho dreams of marrying his unmet Russian internet date. Fragments of conversations are interrupted by lost connections, airport announcements, woofing dogs, domestic thrum. The intimacy is so sticky it’s as if we have materialised inside someone else’s soul.

But unlike fly-on-the-wall documentaries that turn gullible subjects into freaks, Don’t Log Off does not exploit. Interviewer and interviewee are absolutely equal. They are muddling through this encounter together to see if they can find some common ground. Alan exchanges his freedom to broadcast, for their eagerness to be witnessed, so that we listeners might understand ourselves better. It’s an equitable transaction in which everyone wins.

We often have these virtual conversations with invented gods, absent lovers, dead friends, other selves. Alan invites us to look sideways and reflect on who we are and where we are going, through the preoccupations and frustrations of others. They are voices in fog – looming in and out of earshot; dislocated articulations that cling to the vapour and linger long after; imaginary fishes that got away.

Posted in Attention span, Education, Families, Free speech, Internet, Media, Relationships, Storytelling, Travel, Writing | Leave a comment

Less is more…more or less

HMG coat of arms

I’m still buzzing from the D&AD Awards Ceremony at The Roundhouse in June. It was extra brilliant this year because Neville Brody (D&AD President and founder of the Anti-Design Festival) masterminded a parody of awards ceremonies. We got the 1970s light show, street-cred beatboxer, fetishistic nouvelle cuisine, fledgling artists and actors waiting tables, and sexy brochures riddled with references to ‘creativity’. The whole experience was designed to make us question the empty-headedness of awards ceremonies and our slavish addiction to them. The content of these events has become so secondary to the razzmatazz it’s hard to distinguish between the Turner Prize, Eurovision, and a Miss World Contest. Looking sartorially satirical in a spoof business suit, Neville acted out a dazzling Master of Ceremonies piss-take, supported by an ironic dumb blonde handing out the gongs. It stimulated fevered debate on my table as to whether in this crash, bang and wallop digital age, style has finally triumphed over substance.

We glugged our warm white wine and applauded the ‘inventive imagination’ and ‘ground-breaking brilliance’ of ‘creative genius’. The D&AD Yellow Pencils basked the glory of London 2012, empathised with paralympians, raised awareness about health and safety and Parkinson’s disease, and celebrated the usual procession of fast moving consumer goods. But the most significant accolade of the evening was the award of the Black Pencil to Sarah Richards and her team at GOV.UK for an astonishing body of work.

For decades UK government departments have been powerful oligopolies, repelling all boarders with impenetrable content structure and incomprehensible language. DirectGov and BusinessLink were the first digital services to centralise information, and GOV.UK is the child of a report prepared by the marvellous Martha Lane Fox who advocated ‘revolution not evolution’. 400 websites are in the process of being reconfigured within GOV.UK where each department will have a dedicated space for information, announcements, publications and policies. The super-user-friendly beta site is already showing us how to do what we need to do – when someone dies, to claim unemployment benefit, to pass a driving test – all in one place.

One of the mysteries of our industry is why most of the work is witless. There is no shortage of brilliant minds. But many clients struggle to understand how brand, design, images and writing integrate and cling to generic. So it’s all the more astonishing that government – notorious for labyrinthine approval procedures – has trusted GOV.UK editors to control the content and structure of a critical national asset.

The GOV.UK proposition is to ‘hide complexity’ – not just the tools, widgets and calculators – but also the plethora of detail. The user must come first – even over departmental need. Sarah and her team carried out a massive content audit of DirectGov and BusinessLink and interrogated the function of every page. Inclusion was driven by need-to-know and informed by user behaviour and language. They dispensed with the advice and only convey what government actually does. Expect howls of frustration from individuals and agencies struggling with the new formats and teething problems, but dashboards will be linked into every stage of navigation, so failing pages can be amended and re-tested in successive versions.

The GOV.UK mantra is find, read, understand, leave. The tone is informative, succinct, reassuring, brisk. GOV.UK will not tell you how to tell your children you are getting divorced, but will provide a step-by-step journey through the process. Doing less better helps us understand our rights and obligations, and reduces costly or illegal mistakes when dealing with the state.

Neville’s manifesto for the Anti-Design Festival called for work that is scary, dangerous, anti-establishment…that unlocks creative fires and ideas…and welcomes anarchy. So it’s heartening to see the traditionally risk-averse Civil Service producing radical thinking that puts many so called ‘creative agencies’ to shame. But GOV.UK would never have happened without a progressive client. Francis Maude – Minister for the Cabinet Office – has pushed this through by trumpeting simplicity, agility and accessibility, and using open source technology to avoid software licensing costs.

Maybe we should kick all the students out of the art schools (which let’s face it have become finishing schools for middle class kids with rich mummies and daddies), and wheel in the brand managers and marketing directors for crash courses in The Power and the Glory of Creativity. Maybe next year D&AD will announce a new category. A purple pencil perhaps, for the Most Enlightened Client of the Year.


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Second Person

Tim Norwich photo

Earlier this year I was asked to write a personal piece about Ian McEwan and Norwich. It was to be part of a project, called 26 Norwich Writers, marking that fine place becoming England’s first City of Literature. You can read more about the project, and my approach to the McEwan piece, over here. And you can read the twenty-five other stories here. My contribution:


Dear I,

For days I’ve been sitting at my desk, wandering the borders of my subject. Namely, you. I was going around in circles, as blank as the other side of this postcard, my inner editor made anxious by the volumes of words already written about you by others. Then I realised I needed to take the two of us – writer and reader – away from the page and into the world.

To the shared ground of Norwich, of course. We were both at the university. You were partly why I chose to study Literature there. I was interested in writing as verb, as well as writing as noun. So I’m travelling east on Greater Anglia, hoping Norwich will help me find some words about you. I want to see where your writing takes me today; to discover new corners together. Perhaps your presence will draw out the character of this City of Literature.

At this point I should explain that I’m going to bypass my inner editor and write raw. Ten postcards; sent to you on the hour. Write, stamp, post. It also seemed only fair to offer you an image too, so I’m carrying a Polaroid camera. Write, click, develop, glue, stamp, post. We’re coming into the station. Time to begin.



Dear I,

Walking to the taxi rank, I let instinct choose where I go first. I found myself at UEA. Attached, a photograph of the frosted glass door of the School of Literature, Drama & Creative Writing – your student base some 40 years ago. I soon understood why I had brought myself here. Amongst other things, this place is about learning how to start; about forming and testing first thoughts that become the flowing logic of an essay, story or article.

One night you went home from here and wrote the first piece to be produced on a British university creative writing course. “It was about seven o’clock in the evening,” you said, “and I promised myself I would not leave this room, and I would not go to sleep, until I had written a short story.” That’s another way to overcome a block – lock the door. Ten hours later the appropriately titled Conversation with a Cupboard Man existed.

Standing here today, I’m surrounded by notice boards displaying the suggestive paraphernalia of literary academia. Fragments of poems. Reading lists. Portraits of novelists. Details of prizes, bursaries, festivals. They’re inviting me to think about you in terms of Literature. But I feel an urge to move from art to science.



As you can see from the photo, I’ve walked to the science end of the main block – Lasdun’s monumental Teaching Wall. I find you share my distrust of those who separate art from science: “I’m sometimes asked by a literary intellectual in an on-stage discussion – often through the medium of a puzzled frown – why I’m interested in science… Science is simply organised human curiosity and we should all take part. It’s a matter of beauty. Just as we treasure beauty in our music and literature, so there’s beauty to be found in the exuberant invention of science.”

The Roman combination of grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, arithmetic, music and geometry now seems daringly universal. What happened to our faith in the open mind? When did we start to prefer specialising to connecting? Perhaps we would have lost fewer years in the mirrored halls of postmodernism if the humanities had maintained its relationship with science.

PS I’ve dropped the ‘Dear I’. You know who you are and it was in danger of looking like a cheap conceit.



Thinking about science led me to the path connecting the university with the research park. There’s serious curiosity at work here, particularly around the genes of plants and animals. The park is thriving, and Project 26 will see a further £26 million of public funds invested. My own curiosity drew me to some intriguing greenhouses (photo), to the disquiet of a security guard. I explained my brief. He shook his head and politely invited me to leave, suggesting that to be mistaken for a protestor would be unfortunate. As you point out in Solar, along with the pursuit of truth, science is a contested space; a meeting point of politics, morality and economics.

Walking the perimeter fence, I found some vocabulary to enjoy. Companies located here include Bionica (‘technologies and solutions for the Life Sciences’); Inspiralis (‘products and services for the pharmaceutical industry’); and Intelligent Fingerprinting Ltd. (‘proprietary detection reagents and standardised protocols for use in forensics laboratories, scene of incident analysis in policing and homeland security.’). Here too is Spectral Edge, which is developing a method ‘for visualising hyper- and multi-spectral images in colour’. And there’s Virtual Past, which combines ‘state-of the-art computer modelling techniques with historical research to create dynamic new ways to enhance visitor experiences’. All good material for a thriller.



I walked into the city, to Cathedral Close, still thinking about art and science. Of course, you’ve done what a novelist should do: integrated theory into practice, facts into fiction. Hence the line of scientist protagonists in your novels – science writer Joe Rose in Enduring Love; neurosurgeon Henry Perowne in Saturday; physicist Michael Beard in Solar. Then, walking through St Ethelbert’s gate, I saw again that remarkable carving of a man and dragon (photo). The former – his sword drawn, shield raised – is resilient in the face of bestial evil. And from there I was taken to Black Dogs.

For June Tremaine, being attacked by two wild dogs came to be understood as an encounter with evil and with God. While the incident acts as a catalyst for her superstition, her husband Bernard hardens his logic. Their relationship can’t survive the tension between faith and reason. Drawing on centuries of legend about devil dogs (Norfolk has its own, Black Shuck), the novel always reads to me like an ancient tale recast in post-war Europe. It also demonstrates why we need art as well as science. Fictions provide a starting point for rethinking the world. Free of the need for practical aims and concrete conclusions, they invite us to imagine what might be. Black Dogs deepens our humanity by asking us to consider dark questions from different perspectives. Of course, for answers we need reason or faith.



The linguistic menagerie of Norwich streets doesn’t include a black dog. There’s a Golden Dog Lane. Upper Goat Lane. Wounded Hart Lane. Unicorn Yard. Alongside these creatures, connections back to faith and legend: Adam and Eve Yard. Damocles Court. Catherine Wheel Opening. Tombland (photo of the glorious Tombland News sign attached).

I can only find one thoroughfare named after a writer – Rider Haggard Road. Maybe it’s time for Ian McEwan Yard. Enduring Love Lane? Atonement Court? Perhaps another handsome walkway should be built over the Wensum and named the Ian McEwan Willing Suspension of Disbelief Bridge. I can imagine the letters to the Eastern Daily Press. Like science, names are contested space. I hear talk of plans to replace the signs saying Welcome to Norwich – A fine city with Norwich – England’s other city. Apparently, it sounds more contemporary. You once remarked “writers have known for centuries that Norwich is a dreamy city.” If the slogan really has to change, I suggest Norwich – A place apart.



The vernacular graphic language here – signs, posters, notices, graffiti – is rather modest. Aside from a renga that flows alongside the Wensum at St James, striking words rarely venture into the public realm.

But then I wandered into a car park near St Benedicts and before me stood a derelict building covered in writing. Reading from the top – beneath the guttering – I realised it was Thomas More’s Utopia. A passer-by told me artist Rory McGrath painted the entire text of More’s ‘golden little book’ on this redundant Eastern Electricity site. As the photo shows, it’s an ugly monument to a work of art. But there’s something powerful here, something unsettling. It asks interesting questions. What does this say about the world we inhabit? What’s the best way to read a building?



It was time for a drink so I went to the Maids Head Hotel, where you and Malcolm Bradbury sometimes got together for tutorials. “We met like spies,” said Bradbury, “in pubs and teashops.” The hotel was library-quiet, and I wanted to avoid this turning into historical stalking, so I moved on to a bar.

Barman: “What can I get you?”

Me: “You do cocktails?”

Barman: “We try.”

Me: “I’d like an Ian McEwan.”

Barman: “What’s in it?”

Me: “Not sure. Make something up.”

Barman: “Anything?”

Me: “Yep, but it needs to be dark, with an unexpected twist.”*

You can’t complain about me distilling your essence like this. Novelists are always using food and booze to indicate character. Think of the esurient guzzling you force on poor Michael Beard in Solar; the dietic equivalent of your narrator’s moralising on his professional venality and sexual hypocrisy. I forgive you. My ultimate test of a character is whether they live with me when the book is closed. And here I sit with my drink, thinking about Beard. And June and Bernard. And Briony Tallis.

* An Espresso McEwan: vodka, kahlua, crème de cacao, espresso, coffee beans, lemon peel twist (photo).



Walking back to the station, I diverted my course and took the path that runs between the walls of Cathedral Close and the Wensum. I was in search of a door (photo). In Sweet Tooth, you have Serena – who’s visiting her family home in an East Anglian cathedral close – find her way to ‘an old oak door that never used to be locked. It pleased me that it was unlocked now, still squeaked on its hinge. It took me by surprise, this walk across an ancient past.’

I lived opposite here, in a shared house with fellow students. One evening I heard that my housemate, Kate, had missed lectures. That was out of character. Her bedroom door was locked and something told me I must break it down. She was in bed – cold and still; accompanied by a bottle of whisky, a half-empty box of paracetamols and a note that said ‘I’m so sorry’. An unforgettable sentence.

Being back here has reminded me of the great difference between people and characters. Stories require characters to be consistent. If they change we must know why. A great character – those that live away from the page – may well be complex, even contradictory, but they have to be knowable. People are only partly knowable. We have unexpressed feelings, irrational drives, fears that are hidden even from ourselves. From these inconsistencies come actions that help to define us. As I walked back along the riverbank a line from Atonement came to mind: “A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.”



A photograph taken from the window of my train would show a fine diesel locomotive, number 08874, on the opposite platform. According to the boilerplate, her name is ‘Catherine’. It’s not only writers who love to create characters.

Now we’ve reached this point together, I must thank you for indulging the postcard idea. Those written-on-the-spot words and the photographs exist, but were never sent. Just imagine trying to find ten letterboxes. And all those sticky Polaroids. Besides, my internal editor would never let raw material see the light of day. It was a device to get me going. I wrote as I moved, hour by hour, but those words weren’t meant for anyone but me. Dear I. It’s in the shaping and reshaping of words – in making connections and addressing the anxieties about meaning – that I hope to find something I can share.

So I brought Ian McEwan to Norwich and he took me to some unexpected places. If you travel with a writer in your mind anywhere can become a City of Literature.



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Home from Home

Photograph by Max Creasy.

Photograph by Max Creasy.

I can report that a small and rather unusual project I’ve contributed to has seen the light of day. In this case, the light is pouring through holes in a hoarding surrounding a building site in north London, thereby magically producing poetry.

Actually, the poetry was produced by 12 writers, all of whom  took part in a Dark Angels Masterclass at Merton College, Oxford, earlier in the year. We were asked to create a collaborative work for the site, with each writer taking one line. Sounds easy, but there were rules:

Use no more than 34 characters, base your line on the theme of ‘home’ and start the next line with the last word of the preceding line.

The inspiration for the project came from designer Mike Abrahams. He wanted the development’s temporary panels to be more interesting than the normal property-developer declarations about ‘creative lifestyle environments’ and ‘contemporary living’. The shared work that has emerged is a rather gentle, lyrical piece quite different from the assertive, lofty claims that characterise hoarding-speak.

Each month a new line will go up, and we hope that our words intrigue passers-by. There may be a little rearranging of the original sense along the way, as the yellow stoppers used to create each letter can be teased out and re-placed (if you’re tenacious enough). If you’d like to see the words in situ, head over to 100 Shepherdess Walk, N1.

Here’s the poem (and each author):

From Home to Home

Home opens up your own vision of possible                               John Simmons

Possible dances new beginnings with joy                                    Faye Sharpe

Joy in your heart tread lightly with love                                      Neil Baker

Love and soft arms that hold us each night                                Sarah Farley

Night rooms of sorrows and ardour speak                                  Richard Pelletier

Speak dream bright windows to your world                                Charlotte Halliday

World made divine by the promises we keep                               Tim Rich

Keep dreams alive and nightmares at bay                                    Jan Dekker

Bay of belonging a shared harbour our own                                Sue Evans

Own part of my restless heart sweet place                                    John Dodds

Place me in the bosom of this loving house                                  Jamie Jauncey

House me in the heartbeat at heart of home                                Stuart Delves

You see more about the developers of the site at Solidspace.

John Simmons has written some thoughtful lines on the project, and on collaborative writing, over at his 26 Fruits blog.


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Typographical salvage

Glyphics Signs LondonGlyphics signs &Glyphics 3Fellow typophiles and letterati might want to direct themselves to Glyphics Signs on Leonard Street, EC2, right opposite the LASSCO architectural salvage yard. The company makes all manner of signage and print, from wayfinding and wallpaper to vinyls and hand lettering. But the real draw is the eclectic collection of alphabetical orphans they have for sale. I suppose you could call it a typographical salvage yard.

Glyphics UI found everything from a 1940s (?) brewery sign E to a French 1960s italicised O in green zinc. There are huge electric signs, door numbers, 3D letters and a gorgeous ampersand the size of a pony. You’ll find bits, bobs, off-cuts and whole signs rescued from pubs, cafés, public buildings, houses, factories, shops, fishing boats… and so it goes on. All of it is for sale.

The company was founded by Brian Heppell in 1985, and he now runs it alongside his son Tim and a busy team. On the day I visited, the very engaging Paul Crome welcomed me and showed me around the collection. Make sure you see the glorious Haddock Curer sign he rescued from oblivion. It reminded me that I have a hand-lettered Brick Lane shop sign in my attic that’s impatient to be restored.

You can see more at the Glyphics Signs website.


Glyphics Reading

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City of Literature

UEA, Norwich.

UEA, Norwich.

26 Norwich Writers, the latest project from 26, has just gone live over here. It’s a collaboration with the Writers’ Centre in Norwich. Here’s how they describe it:

Norwich is a UNESCO City of Literature, England’s first – we thought we should celebrate the achievement. The writers’ group 26 suggested pairing 26 of its writers with 26 writers from Norwich’s history selected by Writers’ Centre Norwich. The twins turned into triplets when students from the UEA creative writing course joined in. The idea was simple: produce a piece of writing in response to the historic writer you’ve been paired with. And we asked each writer to tell us, through a ‘creation story’, how they went about the task. You can find all these pieces of writing on the site.

The names of the contributors to the project – including mine –were placed in a hat, then pulled out at random. None of us knew who we might end up writing about, and thinking about for weeks on end, until we were informed by email. So signing up for this project involved a degree of risk. What if you disliked your subject (one or two did, as it turned out)? What if you simply didn’t know where to start (a common feeling amongst many of the contributors)?

I was paired with Ian McEwan, a difficult experience I write about in my ‘creation story’ below. If you prefer to go straight to the piece (which I’ve called Second Person), you’ll find it here. It sees me ejected from a science park by security, order an ‘Ian McEwan’ cocktail, wander into an extraordinary version of Thomas More’s Utopia, amongst other adventures.

There are twenty-six pieces on the project website, together with parallel contributions by UEA students. I’ve only just started to read what’s there, but I can already recommend John Simmons’ Skeltonic celebration of John Skelton.

In the meantime, here’s the background to my own effort.

On ‘Second Person’

Some years back my wife, Lesley Katon, came across a box of old postcards in a charity shop. She flicked through, picking out those of interest. One, sent in 1966, featured an amusingly uninspiring photograph of prefab buildings at the University of East Anglia. I was at the university in the late 80s, so she bought it for me.

The card included a wonderfully direct note from someone called Gillian to her friend Sally. The writer was having a miserable time, partly because ‘things are completely finished with R.’ She was clearly keen to receive a visit. ‘You must come up soon (!) to see the appalling mess that Denys Lasdun has thrown us into.’

The postcard of UEA, sent in 1966. The reverse side says ‘This Is A Real Photograph’.

The postcard of UEA, sent in 1966. The reverse side says ‘This Is A Real Photograph’.

Several years later, and an email from the 26 Norwich editors arrives telling me I have been paired with Ian McEwan. For some reason, a televisual scene flashes across my mind: Malcolm Bradbury looks into the camera, holds up a small ball marked with the number ‘26’ and declares ‘Diss Town FC will play Manchester United, away’.

In other words, I found the pairing exciting, but somewhat daunting. Much has been written about McEwan and his works. He also writes and talks with great insight on the art and act of writing. An example: just as I was preparing my piece he produced a remarkable article for The Guardian on what happens when our faith in fiction falters, and what restores it.

My initial approaches brought me full circle to a blank page. Then I realised that sitting at a desk would get me nowhere. I needed to take my subject out into the wider world. And Norwich was the obvious place. I wanted to get my subject and the location interacting. And along the way I could then explore this idea that a place might be considered a City of Literature.

I spent time searching for a format that would reflect or accommodate my movement around Norwich. Then I came across the UEA postcard (which I had tucked inside a copy of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn). I was reminded again how refreshingly direct and succinct postcards are. They are a conversational medium, and often written quickly. That appealed as a way to overcome the anxieties of the blank page.

I’m interested in writing as thinking – a theme I’ve written about here – and the postcard format is an example of how we sometimes use words to clarify what we think, rather than simply record our thoughts through writing. This all seemed promising territory, and then I started to play with the idea of writing the postcards to my subject, which took me down some unexpected roads.

I couldn’t ignore the photographic aspect of picture postcards, not least because I carry a camera everywhere and use it as a second notebook. I wanted my postcards to feature imagery, but I thought it would be more interesting to try to create visual images in the reader’s mind rather than supply real photographs.

A photo-note of St Ethelbert’s Gate, Norwich; a place that reminded me of McEwan’s Black Dogs.

A photo-note of St Ethelbert’s Gate, Norwich; a place that reminded me of McEwan’s Black Dogs.

One of the postcards caused me some disquiet. It recalls a shocking episode from my days living in Norwich. I didn’t want to trivialise something that left many people deeply upset. But Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth had taken me right back to the site of that event, and I felt it would be dishonest if I didn’t reflect this in my piece.

I don’t want to say much more because Second Person is itself a creation tale. A number of people have asked which McEwan book I would recommend as a place to start. I suggest the short story collection First Love, Last Rites – his first published work, and still as powerful today as when it emerged into the world in 1975. Of the novels, I think Black Dogs is an exceptional work of art.

You can read my piece here.


A photo-note of a building in Norwich – referred to in my piece – on which an artist has reproduced the entire text of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’.

A photo-note of a building in Norwich – referred to in my piece – on which an artist has reproduced the entire text of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’.

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