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.
The 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 www.thebelfrey.co.uk (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.