PsychoBarn: A Lesson in Disorientation


I came up from Green Park tube, walked along Piccadilly, past the Ritz, the Wolseley and the Caffè Concerto, and turned into the Royal Academy.

There, in the neo-classical courtyard of this august building, sat a red family house with slatted wooden walls, gothic ornamentation, a tatty white porch and a steep mansard roof.

It stopped me in my tracks.

'Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)’ is a piece by the British artist, Cornelia Parker (at the Royal Academy until March 2019). It was first shown on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2016.  It was built using materials reclaimed from a typical American red barn. They have been carefully dismantled, then re-assembled in the form of the Bates family mansion from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film ‘Psycho’. This in turn was itself a studio interpretation of an Edward Hopper painting, ‘House by the Railroad’ (1925). ‘PsychoBarn’ is smaller in scale than a normal house (just over 30 feet). And it is incomplete. At its rear it is supported by scaffolding, just like a stage-set.

The piece suggests a kind of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ romanticism, at the same time as concealed threat and inarticulate menace. Parker talks about confronting the 'polarities of good and evil'. It is a house built from a barn. It is not whole. It deceives. Its scale confuses. In an urban context its architecture disorientates. And being modeled on a film, which in turn was inspired by a painting, it carries layered meaning.

Parker borrowed the term 'transitional object' from developmental psychology. It was coined in 1951 by the analyst DW Winnicott to describe an item used to provide psychological comfort as a substitute for reality - typically a child’s comfort blanket or teddy bear.

 

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‘PsychoBarn’ is like a comfort blanket in that it is real and unreal. It is initially attractive, simple, reassuring. But on closer inspection it is deceitful, ambiguous, complex.

‘I like the idea that you take things that perhaps seem clichéd. But they’re clichéd for a reason. They resonate with a huge amount of people…The inverse of the cliché is the most unknown place.’

Cornelia Parker

There’s a simple lesson that we could all learn here.

So often modern communication reflects and confirms the world as it is, or as we would want it to be. Our ideas are two-dimensional, flat and transparent. We pedal clichés rather than subverting them; reinforce stereotypes rather than challenging them. Consumption becomes easy, passive and comfortable. And at the same time bland, safe and forgettable.

If we really want to be remembered, we should endeavour to disorientate our viewers; to disarm and disturb them. We should consider changing the context, adjusting the scale, reconfiguring the materials, juxtaposing the incongruous, layering the meaning, subverting the message.

In the midst of the comforting and familiar, we should seek out ‘the most unknown place.’

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Time for a festive break.
Next post will be on Thursday 3 January.
Have a restful Christmas.
See you on the other side, I hope.

'Christmas is here.
I know what I want this year.
Presents and toys are fine.
But I got bigger things in mind.
Santa can you swing more love? More peace?
Because that’s what everybody needs.’

Macy Gray, ’All I Want for Christmas'

No. 209

Shot by Both Sides: Protecting the Right to Change One’s Mind

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Now I’m not sure I’d recommend the 1948 movie ‘A Southern Yankee’ to you. It’s a moderate comedy set during the American Civil War that was often on TV when I was a kid.

I remember being particularly amused by one scene, which it transpires was masterminded by the great Buster Keaton. Red Skelton plays a soldier who finds himself serving with both armies in the conflict. At one point, by a stroke of bad luck, he has to make his way between the Northern and Southern forces in the midst of a furious battle. He realises he must select a side, but the moment he does so he’ll be mincemeat.

Red resolves to stitch two uniforms and two flags together, so that he can be Union from one perspective and Confederate from the other. Initially the plan works. When he marches between the opposing battalions, each army cheers as they see him sporting their own uniform and flag.

However, the wind changes, and Red’s ensign reverses. Some soldiers grow suspicious. In the confusion he turns round. Now both armies see him wearing the opposition’s colours. Disaster! Red ends up being shot by both sides.

'Shot by both sides,
On the run to the outside of everything.
Shot by both sides,
They must have come to a secret understanding.’

'Shot By Both Sides', Magazine (Howard Devoto)

Generally speaking, we are sceptical of people who equivocate. They are weak and hesitant, tentative and unreliable. We accuse them of fudging and hedging, sitting on the fence, standing on the sidelines.

Rather we applaud conviction, confidence and consistency. We like people who are single-minded and strong-willed; who hold the line and stay the course.

In creative businesses we have a particular aversion to circumspection. We belittle the cautious and careful as indecisive and irresolute. The legendary art director and designer George Lois, for instance, complained about what he called ‘The Abominable No Man’:

‘Tell the devil’s advocate in the room to go to hell.’

But sometimes new information reframes the dilemma; new data suggest a different direction; new circumstances demand a change of course. There is a point where self-assurance becomes intransigence; where determination to see things through becomes refusal to see things any other way.

It’s never easy to admit we may have been wrong. It can be awkward, humiliating and embarrassing, particularly when we’re confronting serious issues and big decisions. And so we’ll do anything we can to resist it. As the economist JK Galbraith observed:

'Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.'

Great leaders have the ability to see the merit of opposing perspectives and points of view; to weigh up different sides of an argument and take decisive action accordingly. They pursue their chosen course with conviction. But they also have the courage, humility and good sense to adjust their opinions in line with new evidence and information; to evolve their strategy to accommodate new knowledge and understanding. Great leaders know how to change their minds.

As the nineteenth century American philosopher and psychologist, William James wrote:
'If you can change your mind, you can change your life.'

'Aww, she didn't bat an eye
As I packed my bags to leave.
I thought she would start to cry
Or sit around my room and grieve.
But y'all, the girl, she fooled me this time.
She acted like I was the last thing on her mind.
I would like to start all over again.
Baby, can I change my mind,
I just want to change my mind.’

Tyrone Davis, ’Can I Change My Mind’ (Barry George Despenza / Carl Wolfolk)

No. 208

‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’: Learning to Deal with Departures

 Velazquez, 'An Old Woman Cooking Eggs'

Velazquez, 'An Old Woman Cooking Eggs'

Granny Turley lived alone in a terraced house on Northdown Road, just up from Hornchurch Bus Garage. Granny was a short, hazel-eyed Irish woman with a big heart and a joyous laugh. Smartly turned out in tweed woollen skirt and cotton blouse, her grey hair in a neat bun, she would serve Martin and me ham, egg and chips on a red gingham tablecloth, and supply us with endless cups of sweet tea in china cups. On the living room wall hung a black and white photo of Granny’s large family - including Mum - sitting around that same table; and a rather spooky painting, illuminated by an electric candle, of Jesus exposing his Sacred Heart to the world.

As young children Martin and I would stay with Granny Turley for a few days. We would pass our time playing under the damson tree in the back garden or hammering away tunelessly at the upright piano in the front room. When it was time to leave, Granny would reach into the secret stash of money she kept under a mat, and send us off with a few shillings in our pockets and a sprinkle of holy water from the small font by the front door.

We tend to assume that our elderly relatives have far less eventful lives than our own. But, like so many of her generation, Granny Turley had a story to tell.

Born in 1902 in Dromore, County Down, Sarah Dempster worked as a seamstress, and at the age of 26 she travelled to America on the SS Antonia to join her sweetheart, James Turley. He had made the crossing a few years earlier and got himself a job as a fitter in the coke ovens at Ford’s River Rouge plant in Michigan. They married on the Canadian border, set up home in Michigan and started a family. Subsequently they found themselves crossing the Atlantic again. James took a job at Ford’s in Dagenham and they settled with their young family in Hornchurch. Just in time for the Second World War.

When I was a kid Northdown Road still had traces of the Turleys’ sojourn in the States: Grandad’s banjo sat in a case upstairs; Granny occasionally used an American word - ‘diaper’, for instance; and there was a joint portrait of JFK and the Holy Father above the fireplace.

For some reason I particularly recall Granny bathing me in the big Belfast sink in the kitchen. I was young enough for this to be physically possible and old enough to think it was not entirely normal. As she scrubbed vigorously away at me, she would sing the same refrain, over and over again.

'My Bonnie lies over the ocean, 
My Bonnie lies over the sea. 
My Bonnie lies over the ocean. 
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me.'

I’m not sure why she sang this exactly. It’s a traditional Scottish folk song, and Bonnie is thought to refer to the Jacobite hero Bonnie Prince Charlie. I wonder whether she’d crooned it in Ireland to console herself before joining her sweetheart in the States. Or was it something she’d picked up from the wireless when she was over there? I’ll never know.

In any case, through repetition and its association with a golden time, ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’ stuck with me. I guess it was an early introduction to the melancholy themes of distance, loss, longing and regret - themes that play out in all our lives as we grow older.

'Bring back, bring back, 
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me. 
Bring back, bring back, 
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me. '

Of course, for the most part we associate loss and separation with our personal lives. But they can haunt our work lives too.

Many’s the time I sat in my office listening to a young person I admired relate their countless disappointments with the Agency and the numerous attractions of their next employer. It could be frustrating and depressing. And it was hard not to take it personally.

Our best talent frequently deserts us for bigger jobs, better opportunities, sunnier climes. Our leaders take off to pursue fresh challenges. We can be left high and dry, isolated, rudderless. We hasten to find replacements while at the same time reminiscing about the good times, wondering what we could have done to keep the team together. We are beset by regrets.

I have learned two things.

Firstly, good people are so precious we should do everything we can to keep them as long as possible. Too often complacency, false economies, short-termism and an infatuation with the new lead us to undervalue our best employees. Sometimes we are responsible for our own losses. We should invest as much time retaining talent as recruiting it.

Secondly, we should recognise that we all have to leave some time. It’s a question of when, not if. And what’s more, we all swim in the same pond, and grudges and grievances can taint future relationships and opportunities. So don’t make departures tortuous and unpleasant, painful and personal. We should always separate gracefully.

Granny Turley passed away when I was still young. I never got to ask her to fill in the gaps in her story; to relate her own adventures on the other side of the world; to explain the special resonance of that tune. And I’m not sure what happened to the Sacred Heart painting, the Turley family photo and the image of JFK with the Pope. All that was left was an absence of love.

'Grandma's hands
Clapped in church on Sunday morning.
Grandma's hands
Played a tambourine so well.
Grandma's hands
Used to issue out a warning.
She'd say, "Billy don't you run so fast.
Might fall on a piece of glass"
"Might be snakes there in that grass."
Grandma's hands.’

 Bill Withers, 'Grandma’s Hands'

No. 207

‘The Best for the Most for the Least’: The Eames Office and the Democratic Impulse

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'Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects…the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.’
Charles Eames

I recently watched a fascinating documentary about the creative studio run by American designers Ray and Charles Eames (‘Eames: The Architect and the Painter’).

Charles Eames was born in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1907, studied architecture in Saint Louis and Michigan, and became a practicing architect. In 1940 with friend Eero Saarinen he entered a MOMA competition for 'Organic Design in Home Furnishings'. They were interested in the properties of plywood – how, with the application of heat and pressure, you could fashion the material in different directions and into smooth curves. They set out to design a chair that would mould to the body, that wouldn’t need costly upholstery and could be mass-produced.

Although they won the competition, they didn’t achieve their objectives. The glues were inferior, the chair split and they had to employ upholstery to cover the cracks. The project was shelved.

In 1941 Charles married the Sacramento-born painter Ray Kaiser. They moved to Los Angeles and started working together. Charles brought an architect’s logic and vision; Ray brought an artist’s confidence with colour and juxtaposition. They shared a youthful playfulness, curiosity and invention.

The Eameses’ first success came when they designed a new splint to help the war effort. The conventional metal models in service at the time vibrated, caused pain and aggravated wounds. Ray and Charles created a plywood splint that curved to reflect the shape of a human leg and had holes to remove tension.

‘The people we wanted to serve were various, and to begin with we studied the shape and posture of many types, averages and extremes.’

After the war, with the lessons learned from the splints, the Eameses revisited the plywood chair. Following an extensive period of testing, trial and error, the Eames Lounge Chair Wood (LCW) was born. It was elegant, light and comfortable, it needed no upholstery and it lent itself to industrial production - everything Charles had originally envisaged back in Michigan.

'Choose your corner, pick away at it carefully, intensely and to the best of your ability, and that way you might change the world.’

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 Patent Drawing for LCW chair 1947

Patent Drawing for LCW chair 1947

In 1946, along with a family of plywood chairs, tables and folding screens, the Eames LCW was manufactured and sold by the Herman Miller Company. The range was an immediate success, resonating with a new educated suburban middle class that, after the privations of war, was looking for a fresh, accessible modern aesthetic.

'We don’t do ‘art’ – we solve problems. How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?'

The Eameses worked from a studio at 901 Washington Boulevard, Venice Beach. They designed the space to be flexible and informal. It could repeatedly shift shape to accommodate models, graphics, photography, filming and screening. And they hired young, open-minded, lateral thinking designers to work there.

‘Many of us understood very well that we were very poorly suited for employment in certain kinds of jobs. We were very suited to be there.’
Jeannine Oppewall, Designer

The Eames Office encouraged a vibrant creative culture. It avoided structure, routine and meetings. It was a living workshop of stimulus, ideas and experiments - and it organised field trips to the circus to provide inspiration and food for thought.

‘Take your pleasure seriously.’

The Eameses believed fundamentally in ‘learning by doing.’ They would build prototypes, test, adapt, reject and rethink. This exploratory process gave them a deeper, more intimate comprehension of the problem and took them closer to solving it.

‘Never delegate understanding.’

The working method was also rooted in rigorous study of end users – their physical form, their movement, habits and predispositions.

'The role of the architect, or the designer, is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests.’

The Eames Office continued to design furniture for the Herman Miller Company. It pioneered the use in furniture of technologies such as fiberglass, plastic resin and wire mesh. Its output included numerous classics: the chrome-based DSR (1948), the Eames Lounge Chair (1956), the Eames Aluminum Group (1958).

 Charles and Ray Eames with the 1956 Lounge Chair

Charles and Ray Eames with the 1956 Lounge Chair

At the same time the Office took briefs from all manner of sectors. It was unconstrained by formal category definitions, technical expertise or experience. It worked on architecture projects. The Eames House at Pacific Palisades is regarded as a landmark of 20th century design. It curated exhibitions. It was commissioned by the Government to create a film representing the spirit of the United States to communist Russia; and by IBM to communicate the human value of the computer. Its short corporate videos were consistently charming and inventive. They took delight in explaining the complex in simple terms. Through the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s the Office’s Clients extended to include American titans like Westinghouse, Boeing, Polaroid and Alcoa. And yet Charles Eames always dealt directly with the CEOs, often without a written contract.

‘If you sell your expertise you have a limited repertoire. If you sell your ignorance it’s an unlimited repertoire. He [Charles] was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject. And the journey of him not knowing to knowing was his work.’
Richard Saul Wurman, TED Founder

Today’s marketing and communication industry is rightly seeking to break away from an excess of process, mediation and convention. We’re striving to re-orientate our working cultures around ‘making, not managing’.  So there’s clearly a great deal we could learn from the Eames Office, the very paradigm of a contemporary creative studio.

1. Create an inspiring environment
2. Populate it with misfits and mavericks.
3. Seek to solve problems rather than to create art.
4. Take briefs from the top.
5. Never delegate understanding: focus relentlessly on the end user.
6. Learn by doing: prototype and model, test and learn.
7. Sell the boundless curiosity of your mind, not the narrow confines of your expertise. 
8. Take your pleasure seriously: have fun!

I was particularly struck by the philosophy at the heart of the Eames Office: ‘We want to make the best for the most for the least.’

We may recognise in this simple democratic ideal the kind of admirable ambition articulated over the years by brands like Harrods, Wal-Mart, IKEA, and Google.

‘Omnia, omnibus, ubique.’ (‘Everything for everyone everywhere.’)
Harrods Motto

‘To give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people.’
Wal-Mart Mission

'At IKEA our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people.’

'To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.'
Google Mission

As Andy Warhol memorably observed, there is something very compelling about a truly democratic brand.

'You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.’

Working in the communication industry I found that it was always easier to develop interesting creative work for small, niche, prestige products and services. You are dealing with brands that are already inherently desirable, and with consumers that are already actively engaged. It is generally more challenging, and therefore more rewarding, to make work for big brands in ordinary, everyday sectors; to create content that has mass appeal, that talks to the mainstream, that impacts culture. And, what’s more, you may be performing a social good.

Charles Eames died in 1978 and the Eames Office was closed shortly after. Ray Eames passed away in 1988, ten years to the day after Charles. They are widely regarded as among America’s most important designers. They gave modernism a playful soul and a democratic intent. And the Eames LCW was selected by Time magazine as the greatest design of the twentieth century.

No. 206 

Garbo’s Hat: Recognising People’s Right to Be Wrong

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Greta Garbo was a Hollywood star of the silent era, adored for her luminous on-screen presence, her sophisticated beauty, her worldly-wise personality. With the advent of ‘talkies’ MGM became nervous. What would audiences make of her heavy Swedish accent? They delayed as long as they could. Then in 1930 Garbo played the eponymous heroine of ‘Anna Christie’. She walked into a bar, collapsed into a chair and demanded:

'Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby.’

The studio publicised the movie with posters proclaiming: ‘Garbo talks!’ The public were delighted, and ‘Anna Christie’ was the highest grossing film of the year.

Garbo subsequently performed in a succession of classics, including ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘Queen Christina’, ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Camille’. She consistently played melancholic and melodramatic heroines. She was compellingly serious, earnest, pensive. But gradually her popularity began to wane, and in 1939 the studio decided to change tack, casting her in an Ernst Lubitsch comedy, ‘Ninotchka’.

Buljanoff: 'How are things in Moscow?'
Ninotchka: 'Very Good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.' 

Garbo plays Ninotchka, a Soviet special envoy sent to Paris to organise a sale of royal Russian jewellery. She is sober, stern, judgemental; unimpressed by bourgeois capitalism.

Ninotchka: 'Why should you carry other people's bags?'
Porter: 'Well, that's my business, Madame.'
Ninotchka: 'That's no business. That's social injustice.'
Porter: 'That depends on the tip.'

Wherever Ninotchka goes in Paris, she is taken aback by its indulgent Western ways. All about her seems shallow and superfluous, petty and pointless. She spots a couture hat in a shop window. It looks rather like a lampshade.

Ninotchka: 'What's that?'
Comrade Kopalski: 'It's a hat, Comrade. A woman's hat.'
Ninotchka: 'How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads. It won't be long now, Comrades.'

 Ninotchka also encounters the debonair Frenchman, Count Leon (played by Melvyn Douglas). She recognizes that he is rather charismatic, but dismisses him as entirely frivolous.

 'Now, don't misunderstand me. I do not hold your frivolity against you. As basic material, you may not be bad; but you are the unfortunate product of a doomed culture. I feel very sorry for you.'

Gradually, however, Ninotchka is seduced by the charms of Paris and the Count. And soon she cannot resist the hat she recently found so contemptible.

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‘Ninotchka’ is a magnificent comedy, bristling with elegant witticisms and sharp social satire. It reminded me that, growing up in the midst of the Cold War, we were often prompted to consider the differences between Soviet and Capitalist societies. 

To teenagers like me Communism certainly had its appeal: the avowed commitment to equality, the intolerance of plutocrats, the celebration of the workers, the military caps with retractable ear-flaps. But we were also, of course, aware of the suppression of individual freedoms, of Stalin’s dark secrets. And there was a nagging sense that Communism was somehow dull, dreary and joyless; that it didn’t accommodate human foibles and foolishness - the insignificance of pop, the frippery of fashion, the triviality of brands and advertising. In short Communism didn’t seem to afford people the right to be wrong. And this seemed somehow very important to me.

If you work in the field of marketing or advertising and were fortunate enough to grow up after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s still perhaps worth reflecting on the differences between Capitalism and Communism. You may conclude like me that ordinary people are capricious, fickle and flighty. They oscillate between profound passions and shallow affections; between passionate commitments and superficial attachments. They can be both serious and silly; consistent and erratic. They can comfortably hold two mutually opposing ideas in their heads at the same time. And that’s what makes us human.

In the critical scene of ‘Ninotchka’ our heroine sits down in a restaurant and orders raw beets and carrots. The owner is unimpressed:

'Madame, this is a restaurant, not a meadow.'

Count Leon does everything he can to entertain her over lunch - all to no avail. Finally he resorts to a joke.

 'A man comes into a restaurant. He sits down at the table. He says, "Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream." Five minutes later the waiter comes back and says, "I'm sorry sir, we have no cream, can it be without milk?"'

Ninotchka is still not amused, but when the Count accidentally tumbles from his chair, she breaks into cascades of joyous laughter. Ninotchka’s defences have been breached by a ludicrous pratfall. And Garbo shows a hitherto concealed gift for comedy.

This time round the promotional posters were headlined: ‘Garbo laughs!’

'By the look in your eye I can tell you're gonna cry. 
Is it over me?
If it is, save your tears for I'm not worth it, you see.
For I'm the kind of guy who is always on the roam,
Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home.’

Marvin Gaye, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home) (Barrett Strong/ Marvin Gaye/ Norman Whitfield)

No. 205


A Stumble Is Not a Fall: ‘The Magnificent Disappointment’ of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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‘Nil desperandum (Never despair) has always been my motto.’
Isambard Kingdom Brunel

At the Great Western Dockyard in Bristol you can visit Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s revolutionary ship SS Great Britain. Launched from this dock in 1843, Great Britain became the first iron-hulled, propeller-driven steamship to cross the Atlantic. In her day she sailed to New York and Australia faster and more reliably than any other ship in the world.

You can climb down to inspect the vessel’s robust iron hull and its magnificent red propeller. You can step on-board to admire the spacious upper deck with its three sturdy masts, ship’s bell and cow house. You can wander through the lower decks amongst the plush first class dining rooms, cabins and bathrooms towards the stern; and the more compact quarters for the steerage passengers in the bows. It’s all beautifully preserved.  

Brunel was an engineer of vision. Appointed in 1833 to design the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol, he determined that a shipping line could extend the journey from London all the way to New York. His first ship, the wooden paddle steamer Great Western, broke the record for the Atlantic crossing to New York on its maiden voyage in 1838. And so Brunel was soon commissioned to design a second.

For the Great Britain Brunel seized on an innovative iron-hulled construction that had only recently been developed. It would be longer, stronger, faster and more efficient than its wooden predecessor. And when in 1840 the first propeller-driven steamship, the Archimedes, visited Bristol, Brunel abandoned paddle wheels and adopted screw propulsion.

At her launch the Great Britain was the biggest ship in the world and an engineering masterpiece. She is considered by many to be the first truly modern ship.

However, the Great Western Steamship Company, already stretched by Brunel’s protracted construction process, only managed to sell 45 of its 360 tickets for the maiden crossing. Great Britain’s early years were cursed by propeller damage and fires, and on her fifth voyage in 1846, the Captain missed a lighthouse and ran aground off the coast of Northern Ireland. The iron hull saved the ship, but the Great Western Steamship Company could not afford to pay for the salvage and was forced out of business.

It is easy to imagine when one considers a legendary talent like Brunel’s that his success was inevitable, instinctive and lightly won; that his progress from one triumph to another was stately and effortless. In fact the career of Britain’s greatest engineer was consistently marred by bad luck, setbacks and financial challenges.

 The much-lauded Thames Tunnel, which Brunel designed for his father at the age of 20, was dogged during construction by floods and fatalities; and Brunel himself was lucky to escape with his life.

The Great Western Railway was admired for its broader gauge (7ft ¼ inches), which was faster and could carry more weight than the ‘standard’ gauge (4ft 8 ½ inches). But within a few years the Government, concerned about consistency, voted to prevent any more broad gauge tracks being built.

Brunel determined that the South Devon Atmospheric Railway should employ an innovative vacuum traction method, instead of a conventional locomotive engine, to pull its trains up Devon’s steep hills. But his ‘atmospheric’ system encountered problems at every step and was abandoned within a year.

Though counted a genius in the modern era, Brunel divided opinion in his day. Some regarded his inventiveness and originality as stubborn and wilful.

'Mr Brunel had always an aversion to follow any man’s lead; and that another engineer had fixed the gauge of a railway, or built a bridge, or designed an engine, in one way, was of itself often a sufficient reason with him for adopting an altogether different course.'
Samuel Smiles, 1875

 Other contemporaries were more forgiving.

'We do not take Isambard Kingdom Brunel for either a rogue or a fool but an enthusiast, blinded by the light of his own genius, an engineering knight-errant, always on the lookout for magic caves to be penetrated and enchanted rivers to be crossed, never so happy as when engaged ‘regardless of cost’ in conquering some, to ordinary mortals, impossibility.'
The Railway Times, 1845

The picture of Brunel that emerges is of an extraordinary innovator with a relentless enthusiasm for the new, and a steadfast resilience in the face of setbacks. He was independent minded, free spirited, suspicious of convention, rules and restrictions.

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'I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.'

History tends to gloss over the mistakes and misadventures of its heroes. But often these disappointments were integral to those heroes’ ultimate success.

'Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.’
Winston Churchill

The important lesson here is that pioneers can be quite challenging individuals and uncertain investments. They take risks and embrace the possibility of failure. In the pursuit of progress they are prepared to suffer setbacks, trials and tribulations. But they are of robust character. They pick themselves up, dust themselves down and press on. A stumble is not a fall.

Despite all the criticism and carping, the defeats and disappointments, Brunel is widely recognized today as one of the most versatile and audacious engineers of the 19th century. He reinvented public transport and modern engineering. He went down in history as a truly great Briton.

Perhaps inevitably Brunel’s final grand project, the massive ship Great Eastern ran over budget and behind schedule. The Great Eastern was twice as long and six times the volume of the Great Britain. She was so big that she had to be launched sideways from her dock at Rotherhithe. Working under the glare of publicity, Brunel found the whole enterprise deeply stressful. He suffered a stroke on 5 September 1859, just before his ‘leviathan’ made her first voyage to New York. Ten days later he was dead. He was only 53.

The Morning Chronicle’s obituary summed up Brunel’s legacy thus:

‘There is always something not displeasing to the British temperament in a magnificent disappointment.’

'I'm the living result.
I'm a man who's been hurt a little too much.
And I've tasted the bitterness of my own tears.
Sadness is all my lonely heart can feel.
I can't stand up for falling down.
I can't stand up for falling down.’

Elvis Costello, 'I Can't Stand Up (For Falling Down)’ (Homer Banks and Allen Jones)

No. 204

You Looking at Me? The Passive Observer and the Active Contributor

 Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (1644)

Ribera, The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (1644)

‘If you want me to cry, mourn first yourself.’
Horace, ‘Art of Poetry’

I recently visited an excellent exhibition of paintings by Jusepe de Ribera at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (‘Ribera: Art of Violence’, until 27 January).

Ribera was born near Valencia in 1591 and spent most of his career in Spanish-controlled Naples. From Caravaggio he learned to give biblical and mythical events immediacy by employing real models, gritty settings and dramatic lighting. He gained a reputation for painting vivid works of pain, brutality and suffering: Saint Sebastian bound to a stake and shot through with arrows, Saint Philip about to be crucified upside-down, the centaur Ixion chained to a wheel, the satyr Marsyas being skinned alive.

In many ways Ribera’s work reflected the dark times he was living through. The Counter Reformation was in full swing. The Church was commissioning devotional images of intense emotion to reinforce faith. The Inquisition was hard at work exposing blasphemy and heresy. Daily life was dangerous and cruel. And Ribera could draw directly from the torture and execution he witnessed on the streets of Naples. He sketched prisoners bound and blindfolded, twisted torsos and terrified screams. In grim detail he captured the torment known as ‘strappado’, whereby victims were hung by their arms until they dislocated.

In ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew’ (1644) two thugs set about flaying their victim with vigour; and Bartholomew stares out at us in the grip of unimaginable agony. He seems to be challenging us to meet his gaze, demanding our attention.

‘I did this for you.’

‘You did this to me.’

‘Feel my pain.’

Bartholomew’s anguished look makes us feel uncomfortable, voyeuristic. It is as if we are responsible, involved, complicit in the crime.

It’s a powerfully engaging device - the viewer viewed - and one which Ribera uses again and again in his work. In the midst of some dramatic incident, a lone figure looks out at us from the picture - a grieving holy woman, a terrified victim, a leering executioner - curious, questioning, sceptical.

 Ribera, Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women

Ribera, Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women

What, we seem to be asked, is our point of view on all this? Where do we stand? What are we doing to prevent it?

We’re all at times prone to play the disinterested onlooker, the neutral bystander, the unseen witness. It’s easy to be cool, passive, non-committal and aloof; to be on the sidelines and the fence.

But I’ve found in business that one gravitates towards people with strong personal perspectives; people with passion and conviction. As a leader you’re not asking for everyone to agree with you, but you do want everyone to care.

So if you’re looking to progress your career, take an interest in the future of your industry; a perspective on the outlook for your discipline; a point of view on the prospects for your company. Be an active contributor not a passive observer, a radiator not a drain. Believe in something.

You may not be in a position of power, but you can sign up, pitch in, participate, get involved. You can always do something.

I guess one could say the same about life in general.

‘If not you, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?'

(Quotation attributed to numerous sources, but ultimately derived from Jewish leader, Hillel the Elder)


No. 203

Does Your Business Have Nightingale Floors? Learning to Recognise the Early Warning Signs of Danger

 Nijo Castle gates

Nijo Castle gates

As a dignitary visiting the Shogun at his Nijo-jo Castle in Kyoto, you would pass through the magnificent Karamon Gate, with its Chinese-style gables and exquisite carvings of cranes, lions, pines and plum blossoms. Mindful of the Shogun’s power, you would perhaps hesitate as you entered the Ninomaru-goten Palace: 33 rooms and 800 tatami mats elegantly arranged within six connected buildings in a diagonal line. In the first and largest room, you would be greeted by fierce tigers painted on the bright golden walls. You would be ushered through more gold halls, these decorated with peacocks to signal the Shogun’s wealth, and pine trees to mark his everlasting prosperity. Your sense of awe and anticipation would gradually escalate as you were escorted quietly from one imposing chamber to the next. The Shogun awaits.

 Kuroshoin (Inner Audience Chamber) Nijō Castle

Kuroshoin (Inner Audience Chamber) Nijō Castle

On your route through the Palace you would marvel at the floorboards that sing like nightingales as you walk down the corridor. An attendant might explain that the sound of the nightingale floors is produced by clamps moving against nails driven into the wooden supporting beams. Are the floors designed merely to delight and impress, you wonder? Or are they an early warning system, announcing the presence of intruders?

As I paced along the corridor of the Ninomaru-goten Palace accompanied by a chorus of birdsong, my mind turned to early warning systems in business.

‘It’s a small project. We don’t want to distract you.’

If you work in an Agency and you hear these words, alarm bells should be ringing. What is being characterised as a modest and marginal initiative, may well be a door through which your competitors will come streaming in. It’s an early warning that your Clients find you boring, predictable, slow or expensive - perhaps all of these things. They’re keen to try out new talent, to find fresh ideas, to see how a different relationship feels.

‘The boss is very interested in this research project and has decided to attend the debrief next week.’

It is encouraging that your most senior Client is curious about a humble research debrief. But other motives could be at play. What if the Marketing team know which way the findings are heading and have invited their boss to witness your trial and execution? Maybe you’re being set up for a fall.

‘The work’s good, but is it great? Can we push it harder?’

Any Agency worth its salt should have an inner voice encouraging it to take ideas further and faster. In the natural course of events, it is the Clients’ role to rein the Agency back, to sound a note of realism and practicality. So when these challenging sentiments are expressed by your Clients, you should be concerned. The natural order has been overturned and it doesn’t bode well.

‘I think we need to design a new marketing model, something that reinvents the way our brand engages with consumers.’

Of course, all businesses need a new marketing model for the modern era. But you may find that this pronouncement positions you as the old marketing model - and therefore past your sell-by date.

‘As I’m new in this role I’d like the Agency to take me through the brand strategy, campaign thinking and performance data from the bottom up.’

The most obvious early warning sign for any Agency is the appointment of a new senior Client. But sometimes even when we know to be on our guard, we respond in completely the wrong way.

Many times in my Agency career we reassured our new Marketing Director with a presentation that detailed how well we knew the brand, how robust and effective the campaign was. It was only after a number of unfortunate encounters that I realised that new Marketing Directors interpret experience as orthodoxy, longevity as conservatism, confidence as complacency. They’re not looking to keep a gentle hand on the tiller. They’re keen to shake things up, to make their mark.

  Uguisubari corridor ( Nightingale Floor) Nijō Castle

Uguisubari corridor (Nightingale Floor) Nijō Castle

All businesses need nightingale floors - a sensitivity to the subtle signs of impending crisis, an appreciation of the incidental events and innocuous remarks that in fact prefigure danger. If you’re lucky, your nightingale floors will alert you just in time to avert disaster.

And so finally you arrive in the Ohiroma or Grand Hall for your audience. The Shogun sits on a raised dais, facing south, attended by his court. You quiver a little. He doesn’t like to hear bad news.

Three hundred years or so later one would anticipate a meeting with John Bartle and Nigel Bogle with a similar sense of apprehension. They too commanded admiration and anxiety in equal measure. They too had an office on a raised step. But you knew as you approached them with your request to intervene on the account that was in crisis, that it was already too late. You should have acted sooner.

 

'I know the highest and the best.
I accord them all due respect.
But the brightest jewel inside of me
Glows with pleasure at my own stupidity.
This is a song from under the floorboards.
This is a song from where the wall is cracked.'

Magazine, 'A Song From Under the Floorboards' (Barry Adamson / Howard Devoto / John E Doyle / John Mc Geogh / David Tomlinson)

No. 202

 

Coming Apart at the Seams: What Are the Repressed Truths Holding Your Business Back?

image-1.jpg

'There are six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another...

The fear of poverty
The fear of criticism
The fear of ill health
The fear of loss of love of someone
The fear of old age
The fear of death.'

Self-help guru Napoleon Hill, ‘Think and Grow Rich' (1937), quoted in the introduction to ‘The Humans’ by Stephen Karam

I recently attended Stephen Karam’s fine play ‘The Humans’ (at the Hampstead Theatre), which considers the plight of a modern middle class American family struggling to keep their heads above water.

‘Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?’

The Blakes are in many ways a typical family, bound by deep bonds of shared experience, rituals and affection; by in-jokes, teasing and bickering. Their conversation weaves effortlessly in and out of the facile and profound.

‘Well you’ve still got the will to eat superfoods – if you’re so miserable why are you trying to live forever?’

And they have the usual intergenerational disagreements around such things as religion, lifestyle, ambition and work.

‘Are you so spoiled you can’t see you’re crying over something hard work can fix?’

But the Blakes are under attack. They are assaulted from without by unaffordable housing, lack of career opportunities, unstable employment, poor pension provision, debt and unfaithful lovers.

And they are also assaulted from within. Grandmother Momo has dementia. Dad Erik is haunted by nightmares and memories of 9/11. Daughter Aimee has a chronic illness. And there are family secrets that can no longer be suppressed.

The Blake parents steadfastly cling to the belief that the American family is inherently equipped to survive; that they can get through this; that they will endure.

‘The Blakes bounce back. That’s what we do.’

But the context of contemporary life, with its very particular anxieties and inequalities, makes this confidence less convincing. It’s hard to survive in America today. And the sense of a family imploding under numerous and constant pressures is enhanced by the faltering lighting in the apartment building, and by the eerie thudding noises that emanate from the flat above. The Blakes are falling apart at the seams.

In the programme notes Karam sheds light on the theme he is exploring by quoting Sigmund Freud’s essay on the ‘uncanny’:

‘The ‘uncanny’ (unheimlich) is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, something once very familiar…Something uncanny in real experience can generally be traced back without exception to something familiar that has been repressed.’

Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919)

I found myself considering how modern businesses similarly have to cope with escalating pressures from within and without; how they also suffer tensions that derive from repressed truths dating back to the origins of the company - an enduring blind spot, a perennial vulnerability perhaps; an imbalance of talent and contribution; an asymmetry of credit and recognition; personal resentments and regrets, petty feuds and rivalries; the lack of an apology, the absence of forgiveness.

Often these tensions are suppressed, papered over, for the good of the business, for the profile of the company, for esprit de corps. But veterans and insiders know: the fault lines that were there at the outset can be seen and felt. They are familiar, not far beneath the surface. They continue to tug and tease at the corporate psyche. They play out in its ongoing challenges and disappointments.

Ask yourself this: What are our company’s repressed problems, our unarticulated tensions, the truths that dare not speak their names? What are the stresses and strains that derive from our past, but remain ever-present, uncertain and unsettled?

Often the greatest challenge any enterprise faces is to look in the mirror and see itself – clearly and honestly, without gloss or self-deception. If you at least ask the questions, you may find you’re half way to answering them.

'The changing of sunlight to moonlight,
Reflections of my life,
Oh, how they fill my eyes.
The greetings of people in trouble,
Reflections of my life,
Oh, how they fill my eyes.
Oh, my sorrows,
Sad tomorrows,
Take me back to my own home.'

The Marmalade, 'Reflections Of My Life’  (William Campbell Jnr / Thomas McAleese)

No. 201

Dressing for Yesterday: Seek Out the Social and Economic Jet Stream

  Group Captain   James Stagg

Group Captain James Stagg


‘Have you ever been to the beaches of Hastings, or Brighton, or Portsmouth? Ten o’clock in the morning it’s baking hot, the beach is packed. By midday, there’s a howling wind and the Punch and Judy man has packed up for the day. By two o’clock, the rain is horizontal, but by four o’clock the sun is beating down again and it’s eighty degrees. Nothing is predictable about British weather, that’s why we love to talk about it.’

Group Captain James Stagg, ‘Pressure’

I have an uncomfortable relationship with the weather. For some reason forecasts pass me by. Through the fog of getting up in the morning I rarely register what the bulletins are saying. They talk over and through me. And so my sartorial choices are driven by yesterday’s conditions. I assume a meteorological continuity that the British climate doesn’t warrant. And I find myself venturing into the searing heat in a tweed suit; into a cold snap with just a cotton smock; into the pouring rain without an umbrella. I always dress for yesterday.

Earlier this year I attended a fine play dedicated to the vicissitudes of the British climate. ‘Pressure’ by David Haig relates the story of Group Captain James Stagg, the Chief Meteorological Officer for the Allied Forces, who in June 1944 was responsible for forecasting the weather on D-Day.

The fleet is assembled along the South Coast. The tides, times and phases of the moon are appropriately aligned on only a few days each month, and General Eisenhower has allocated the 5th of June for the largest amphibious invasion in history. As the big day approaches, Stagg and his American counterpart, Colonel Irving Krick, are required to give a definitive meteorological assessment. 350,000 lives depend on them making the right call.

Krick employs the conventional method of forecasting: he revisits the charts from previous years where conditions were similar, and establishes analogues. He is confident that the weather will be fine.

‘The proof is in the past. I anticipate calm seas and clear skies on Monday – perfect conditions for the Normandy landings.’

Stagg disagrees. Sensitive to the temperamental British climate, he urges Krick to think beyond historical analogues; to take into account other factors; to think ‘three dimensionally’. He is a meteorological pioneer and he has recently discovered the jet stream. He predicts severe weather.

‘My forecast is not only based on weather at the surface. I’ve considered upper air-currents within the troposphere, at the tropopause, and in the lower stratosphere…The most powerful of these currents, measured two hours ago at twenty-eight thousand feet, is three hundred miles wide and three miles deep. I’ll refer to it as the jet stream.’

Stagg explains that the jet stream is prompting storms to move more rapidly than the surface charts would imply, and so severe conditions can be expected in the Channel on 5th June.

Ultimately Stagg persuades Eisenhower to delay the invasion by a day. He is right. There are high winds, heavy seas and low cloud on 5th June; but there is sufficient good weather on the 6th to make the Normandy landings a success.

It struck me watching the play that much of modern strategy is driven by the type of historical analogues on which Krick depended. We love case studies, precedents and best demonstrated practice. We cling to models and algorithms that anticipate tomorrow on the basis of yesterday; that predict the future on the basis of the past. Ten years on from the global financial crash, this remains the case.

Stagg teaches us to lift our eyes from the rear view mirror and think three dimensionally. The best strategists have foresight, an instinct for change, a curiosity about the evolving factors that might precipitate events. They seek the social and economic jet streams that are driving outcomes from high up in the stratosphere.

They don’t dress for yesterday. They dress for today.

‘Look out, kid.
Don't matter what you did.
Walk on your tip toes,
Don't tie no bows.
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose.
Keep a clean nose,
Watch the plainclothes.
You don't need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.’

Bob Dylan, 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'

 

In memory of Charlie Robertson, my first Planning Head at BBH. Funny, sharp, considerate and inspiring, he was everything you’d want from a strategist and leader. And he didn’t need a weather man to know which way the wind was blowing.

RIP Charlie Robertson (1954 – 2018)

No. 200