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 | Leave a comment

Slave to the rhythm

I recently judged D&AD’s Writing for Design category. While browsing the tables of entries I bumped into Brazilian journalist Claudia Penteado, who was there to write about the work entered and the judging process. A few days later Claudia asked me for some longer comments on the topics we discussed at Olympia, from the quality of copywriting today to my own approach to writing. If your Brazilian Portuguese is up to scratch you might prefer to read Claudia’s cut of the interview – for Epoca Negocios – which is here. If not, there’s an English version below. Please drop me a line in the comments, or on Twitter, if you disagree with my views or have something to add. And apologies in advance for using the p-word. Obrigado.

What is good creative writing, in your opinion?

I think we need to separate creative writing as art from commercial writing here.

For me, the artist or creative author is free. They may choose to adhere to constraints – for creative, financial, technical or personal reasons – but that’s their choice. Good creative writing makes a deep impression on you as a reader, perhaps because the story draws you in or because the language and the ideas conveyed are beautiful or surprising or enlightening.

Good commercial writing marries creative writing techniques with a clear purpose and within limitations. It uses the power of language to convey a message or idea. The writer is in a three-way relationship with the reader and the client, but the reader must always come first.

You were recently a judge at the D&AD looking for the best work in Writing for Design category. What were you looking for?

Meeting of the Minds

Meeting of the Minds campaign by Whybin\TBWA\DAN, a nomination in the D&AD Awards Writing for Design category.

I was looking for work where the written language drew me in, made me think, perhaps surprised me, and certainly left me with a memorable message or idea or experience. I was looking for a smile in the mind, but I was also happy to be unsettled or challenged.

I also wanted to see a strong relationship between words and design. And the writing had to be so well crafted that it felt natural, in the same way that a great photographer disappears, allowing you to move into the world of the subject. I’m always looking for writing that does something new, but most of all I want it to take me somewhere interesting.

Was good writing in design hard to spot?

Yes, partly because there are relatively few entries in that category compared to, say, the graphic design category. There’s some terrific work being done out there but the general standard of writing in design is simply not good enough. There are many reasons for this – from the limitations imposed by inexperienced or ignorant clients to the quality of writers. We writers need to work much harder to inspire companies to commission and support great work, and to develop our own abilities and confidence. We must fight to create better work on behalf of our readers. That’s one reason why I and others set up 26, a collaboration that brings writers and editors together so we can learn from each other and raise standards.

Why is it so hard to find good writing in advertising these days? Or in journalism?

There’s great writing out there but it’s surrounded by a huge swamp of mediocre copy. As content multiplies so good writing becomes more and more of a potential differentiator. This is something that most clients and agencies pay lip service to while in reality creating standard work. You can talk endlessly about brand storytelling and content marketing and tone of voice but unless you have people who can really write you’re just generating more noise.

How creative were you as a kid?

My obsessions as a young kid were football and reading. Then I got into music and writing lyrics. I was a drummer and I think that has helped my writing enormously. Rhythm is the hidden magic within great writing.

Can good writing be taught?

No one is born with a gene that means they’ll be able to write well. Good writing starts with good reading, which should start in school and hopefully at home. But even if you have an awful education you can still learn to write well later in life.

I help people to write at work through training – horrible word ‘training’ but there you go – and I run workshops for designers helping them to develop their confidence and skills with words. The change in their ability with language can be remarkable. But the person must be hungry to keep learning and developing their skills once the teaching stops.

You also have to remember that good writing starts with good thinking. As David Ogilvy wrote: “Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.” You must develop your intellect if you want to write well.

Can creativity be taught?

I think you can inspire people to have the confidence to think creatively and you can teach techniques for helping the development of ideas and expression. But the student must go on to think for themselves and express themselves. There’s a restlessness about creative people – unless someone has that constant desire to do things in a new way all that teaching will be pointless.

What does it take to be a good writer?

It starts with having an interesting, curious mind and ends with knowing which words to leave out, and there are a few things in between too.

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 12.01.31

How did you become a writer?

My mother worked in a newsagent’s shop so I was surrounded by newspapers and magazines as a child. From comics to Vogue to football magazines to broadsheets and tabloids, I read constantly and soaked up written language. But I also became interested in how the words related to the visuals, the type and the layout, even the inky paper itself. I went on to study English Literature and Film at university, then managed to get a job as a writer on a group of magazines for the creative industry. I ended up editing Graphics International magazine (now Grafik) and writing for titles such as Print in New York and Design Week in London.

Now I work as a writer and communications consultant for businesses and organisations, specialising in helping companies when they’re in crisis or going through a major change or need help to define their purpose. I write for myself in the spaces between work projects.

Can you describe your creative process?

With my commercial writing it’s all about knowing who the readers are, what they care about, what we need to say to them and what we want them to think, feel or do having read our words. Then I investigate what the company’s story is, test and develop their arguments, and search for facts and examples. I don’t start writing until I’ve thought through the argument or developed my story structure.

Story structure is vital to almost everything I do. I define story in terms of challenge, action, transformation. There must be a danger, problem or mystery to be solved or overcome – that’s the challenge. An individual or group of people must do specific things in response to the challenge – the action. The world must be a substantially changed place as a result of their actions – the transformation. This structure gives your narrative energy and momentum.

Businesses tend to shy away from talking about the difficult issues they face, but by bringing out the challenge you can make their story or campaign or speech powerful and persuasive. The more you humanise the story the closer you get to evoking emotion in your reader. I use story as the basis for helping companies to transform their entire way of communicating. But they must be prepared to talk about what they’re against – the challenge – as well as what they’re for.

Do you believe in creative blanks?

Yes. They happen to me when I don’t have the right raw material – an understanding of my reader, the client’s story and the argument. Until the foundations are in place I can’t build something.

Does the creative process cause you anxiety, pain, little sleep? Or is it easy, natural, light?

When I’m struggling with a brief it feels like I’m lost in a maze by the sea, with the tide coming in. It’s become less worrisome as I’ve gained experience. But it’s rarely simple. As American journalist Gene Fowler said; “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

What inspires you?

The older I get the further afield I look for inspiration. Next week I’m going to hear a diplomat talk about how to negotiate. The week after I’m spending the day with a police hostage negotiator so I can learn how he uses language to persuade people to act in a certain way, in life and death situations. I’m also inspired by scientists who refuse to accept conventional principles and engineers who redefine what’s possible physically. When you see what great architects and engineers create, there’s no excuse for dull, badly structured, badly presented prose.

I’m also inspired by people who argue a line that’s unpopular. There’s a journalist in the UK called Brendan O’Neill who interrogates orthodox thinking brilliantly. I believe passionately in free speech, not least that people should be free to say things that others find deeply offensive. I’m surprised so few people working in advertising, design and communications care about this issue of freedom and self-expression.

The creative industry likes to think it’s full of brave thinkers and imaginative souls but in my experience agency people are usually politically correct and socially conservative. They’re happy to support obviously liberal causes but rarely want to engage in debate about complex or controversial matters. They think climate change is awful but very few think about how restrictions on energy supply might keep billions of people in the developing world in poverty, for example.

What turns you off?

Corporate jargon. And companies who have nothing interesting to say about themselves. I ask new clients ‘if this company disappeared right now would the world be a worse place?’ If you don’t believe in what you’re doing why should anyone else?

Do you prefer to create alone or are brainstorming processes interesting or even necessary?

I like to collaborate first, then take away the material and work on a first draft on my own. Then I’ll share that draft, discuss with everyone again, then go away and rewrite. I’ll keep doing that until we get to where we need to be. Sometimes I’ll bring in a second writer for part of the process.

Collaboration is vital; so is concentrated solo thinking. But it’s important that the draft becomes everyone’s property, not just yours. The final piece should be the result of all the minds that were involved.

As the writer you need to fight like mad to protect the story and the words while recognising that ultimately they are the client’s story and words, not yours. You must be protective but not precious. I always share my rationale for why I’ve written the draft a particular way – that’s something I learned working on high-profile crisis projects for BP. I never say ‘it just sounds right’, always ‘I believe this is right because X’.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I write for myself – poetry, stories, essays – though time is tight. My wife is a creative director and film maker, so we talk a lot about the world, particularly art, music, politics and food. We travel as much as we can, particularly to Italy, the Middle East and North Africa at the moment. And we watch football. I support Chelsea and she’s Arsenal, so sometimes it gets heated in our house.

What would you do if you were not a writer?

I would love to be a politician, artist, photographer or vet!

Josef Muller-Brockmann – great visual editor

Josef Muller-Brockmann – great visual editor

Who are some of the most creative people who inspired you along the way?

My writing has been helped by many of the designers I’ve worked with and met, particularly those who have the conceptual talent to transform complexity into simplicity without losing subtlety. They include Josef Muller-Brockmann, Alan Fletcher, Mike Dempsey and David Stocks.

I’ve also collaborated with some great commercial writers such as Jim Davies and Nick Asbury, and a commercial writer with an unusual mind called Tom Lynham. He’s been a product designer, photographer, cartoonist, tree surgeon and furniture exporter and he brings an incredibly imaginative approach to language, as if words are tactile materials. I’ve also been fortunate to collaborate with the author John Simmons, who has probably done more to inspire clients to think creatively about words than anyone else I know.

What do you recommend to young people who want to become good writers?

Read everything, from great novels to the copy on the back of shampoo packs. Read books on writing by George Orwell (Politics and the English Language), Harold Evans (Essential English), William Safire (On Language), David Ogilvy (On Advertising), Stephen King (On Writing), Peggy Noonan (On Speaking Well) and John Simmons (We, Me, Them and It). But start with Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. Read great poetry, both old and new. And listen closely to the lyrics of the songs you love. Then find other writers and talk about writing.

Don’t confuse creative writing and commercial writing – they are related but have different ends. Don’t be afraid to develop your own way of writing or your own voice – the world needs new writing not a poor imitation of what’s already been written. Don’t worry if some people hate what you do – that’s better than being considered just ‘OK’. Always read your words out loud – you’ll immediately know what works and what doesn’t. And finally, don’t mistake talking or thinking about writing with getting on and doing it. Writing is first a verb, then a noun. In other words, get to work on that draft!

Inspector MontalbanoWhich books/films have you read lately? Why did you love them?

I’m on holiday in Sicily right now, so I’m reading some of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano detective thriller series. The plots keep you hooked but it’s Montalbano’s character that gives the books such depth and charm. He’s a man of principle grown weary of a world led by compromise and corruption. There’s murder and fear but also wonderful moments of humour and friendship and loyalty – and Sicilian food.

On film, I prefer documentaries, or films set close to everyday life. I just saw Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah for the second time, which is based on journalist Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction book of the same name. It looks at life in modern Naples, particularly the toxic effect of the Camorra on the poorest in the city. Dark and fascinating.

Tim

Rhythm and writing

Keith Moon – an inspiration for writers

 

 

Posted in 26, Advertising, Authors, Books, Brand, Business, Corporate communications, Design, Editing, Education, Free speech, Magazines, Media, Reading, Storytelling, Tone of voice, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s all Greek to me

 

0preobrazhenie_grm

Just back from Easter in the Peloponnese. Chaos meets miracles. Microscopic olive buds bursting from elephantine trunks. Marble soft as a pillow. Iridescent jet propelled beetles as big as mice. Horses performing circus tricks for sugar cubes. Giant lemons of many varieties hanging from one slender bough. Satellites like flying islands winking between the stars. Dynamited Judas in a watery fire festival. Christ is risen.

I visit the same seaside village every year to write and think and hook-up with a diverse bunch of people from a mixture of countries. We did lots of nothing in the hope that something might happen. Lunches, suppers, swims, walks, and conversations late into the early hours stumbled over theology, iconography, mythology, ethnicity, bribery and corruption, Panathinaikos versus Olympiacos, cats, and the impending Mayoral elections.

The joys of these interactions are the vocabularies, gestures and expressions we engineer to communicate across language and cultural barriers. Despite global homogenisation, there are still striking differences in outlooks and attitudes that invite deconstruction – from the way we crack our eggs at breakfast to fundamental ethical issues. Translating one language into another is not just about the meaning of words, but interpreting perceptions, idioms and behaviors. Learning how others live their lives, helps us make sense of our own.

Ancient Greece was a seafaring empire empowered by the Gods of Winds. Aeolus gave Odysseus the bag of breezes to speed his voyage. Tramountara sporting serpent tail feet tormented mortals with turbulence. Eurus rained down warmth and fertility to launch the spring. Notus breathed fogs of stealth into plots and conspiracies. Zephyrus was the God of Love who sired Achilles’ immortal stallions.

Modern Greece is languishing in the doldrums. Glimmers of hope are on the horizon but poverty, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, crippling debt repayments, and sluggish growth are smothering recovery. This nation has to change – but how and into what? Like many countries that have been oppressed, invaded, and carved up over centuries, Greece is clinging to sovereignty and sanity by the skin of its teeth.

Political disillusionment, economic instability, and confusion over identity are breeding grounds for extremism. Greek’s neo fascist Golden Dawn party use fear of the unknown to inflame insecurity. Ultra-nationalism, racism and xenophobia incite hate, destroy democracy, fracture communities, and then hook their claws into the wreckage. Civilisation is a fragile veneer. The unthinkable can rapidly become normal.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift used satire to ridicule and influence the Machiavellian machinations of his times. It was also a parody of the ‘traveller’s tales’ genre of writing that emerged from the Grand Tours of the 18th century. Gulliver’s encounters of surreal societies celebrated the contradictory nature of allegory. One of the many enduring qualities of this book is that the relationship between Swift (the writer) and Gulliver (the character) is so mischievously intermingled. In this excerpt, the Principle Secretary of Lilliput explains the fatuous political and religious dogma that has rendered the establishment so dysfunctional, and begs Gulliver’s help to save their souls.

“Lilliput and Blefuscu have been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion. The primitive way of breaking eggs before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy and breaking an egg according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law there have been six rebellions raised on that account wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral. This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’ And which is the convenient end, seems, in my humble opinion to be left to every man’s conscience, or at least in the power of the chief magistrate to determine. Now, the Big-endian exiles have found so much credit in the emperor of Blefuscu’s court, and so much private assistance and encouragement from their party here at home, that a bloody war has been carried on between the two empires for six-and-thirty moons with various success; during which time we have lost forty capital ships, and a much a greater number of smaller vessels, together with thirty thousand of our best seamen and soldiers; and the damage received by the enemy is reckoned to be somewhat greater than ours. However, they have now equipped a numerous fleet, and are just preparing to make a descent upon us and his imperial majesty, placing great confidence in your valour and strength, has commanded me to lay this account of his affairs before you.”

 

Hitler in Lilliput

Posted in Art, Authors, Books, Celebrities, Colloquialisms, Crisis communications, Education, Families, Food, Football, Free speech, History, Jargon, Translation, Vocabulary, Writing | Leave a comment

Rock Paper Scissors

Danger

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

Cut-Ups

William Burroughs and Jean Michel Basquiat

Junkie

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

Posted in Attention span, Authors, Books, Celebrities, Colloquialisms, Crisis communications, Design, Editing, Education, Families, Free speech, Graffiti, Health, History, Jargon, Letters, Magazines, Media, New York City, Photography, Poetry, Politics, Relationships, Storytelling, Tone of voice, Typography, Vocabulary, Writing | Leave a comment

SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP

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

OUT GOES YOU!

 

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.

Einstein

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

imgres

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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?

Apostrophegeddon

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 stories.com, 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.

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The best pictures are on the radio

images

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.

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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:

10am

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.

 

11am

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.

 

12pm

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.

 

1pm

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.

 

2pm

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.

 

3pm

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.

 

4pm

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?

 

5pm

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).

 

6pm

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.”

 

7pm.

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.

Tim

Utopia

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