Relative Values: Considering Collective Good in the Workplace

David Hare, 1979. Loveridge/Evening Standard/Getty Images

David Hare, 1979. Loveridge/Evening Standard/Getty Images

‘You think attitudes are all to do with whim. You understand nothing. Attitudes are all to do with character.’
Nrovka, ‘The Bay at Nice.’

I recently saw a compelling revival of David Hare’s 1986 play ‘The Bay at Nice.’ (The Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 4 May.)

We are in Leningrad in 1956, and Valentina Nrovka, a Russian artist, has been invited to the Hermitage to offer her opinion on the authenticity of a Matisse painting. 

Nrovka has had a fascinating life. She spent her youth living freely among the expatriate artists in Paris. She was taught painting by Matisse and had a daughter by a soldier who was just passing through. Then in 1921 she returned home to post-revolutionary Russia out of a sense of duty, of responsibility to the greater good. She now cuts a somewhat melancholy figure, disappointed by the flawed realities of the Soviet state.

‘Everyone here lives in the future. Or in the past. No one wants the present.’

Nrovka’s daughter Sophia meets her at the museum to seek help in arranging a divorce - a complex and expensive business within the Russian system. Nrovka, however, is sceptical of the durability of her daughter’s love for her new man, Linitsky.

‘We all have a dream of something else. For you it’s Linitsky. Linitsky’s your escape. How will it be when he becomes your reality? When he’s not your escape? When he’s your life?’

Nrovka is also more broadly critical of Sophia’s romantic talk of free will, rights and liberty. 

‘’I must be myself, I must do what I want…’ I have heard these words before. On boulevards. In cafes. I used to hear them in Paris. I associate them with zinc tables and the gushing of beer. Everyone talking about their entitlements. ‘I must be allowed to realize myself.’ For me it had a different name. I never called it principle. I called it selfishness.’

Whilst Nrovka is negatively predisposed to her daughter’s divorce proposals, she is happy to discuss the principles of painting that she learned from Matisse.

‘Each colour depends on what is placed next to it. One tone is just a colour. Two tones are a chord, which is life….No line exists on its own. Only with its relation to another do you create volume.’

We realise that Nrovka has applied Matisse’s artistic beliefs to her own life: she relinquished her individual freedom in pursuit of collective good; she chose belonging over independence; she found comfort in the context of shared homeland, culture and community.

Hare’s play resonated with me because Nrovka’s core arguments seem so unfashionable today. In the modern era we concentrate so much on self-help, self-improvement and self-actualisation; on individuality, autonomy and free will. We want to achieve our own particular goals, to realise our personal potential, to be the best that we can be. We all aspire to be a star performer, a hero or a headline act. We’d all like to play a leading role in our own movies. 

We talk less often nowadays about the rewards of shared success and collective accomplishment; about the benefits of belonging and participating; about team, comradeship, unity and kinship. 

And yet there are compensations to be found in mutuality and togetherness at work. There are consolations in subordinating the self to the collective. Indeed you could argue that in this age of interdependence it is only in the context of the group that we can ever attain individual contentment.

When investors seek to determine an asset’s worth, they don’t just look at its intrinsic value. They also take into account the value of similar assets, thereby establishing ‘relative value’. Maybe we should apply both intrinsic and relative perspectives to our own careers.

Reflecting further on Matisse’s creative practice, Nrovka observes that the great artist worked incredibly hard, finding inspiration in everything around him. When he was tired and needed to relax, he would put his palette down and go to the mountains.

‘You can’t paint a mountain. The scale is all wrong.’

'Here's my chance to dance my way
Out of my constrictions.
Givin' you more of what you're funkin’ for,
Feet don't fail me now.
Do you promise to funk, the whole funk,
Nothin' but the funk?
One nation under a groove,
Gettin' down just for the funk of it.
One nation and we're on the move,
Nothin' can stop us now.’

Funkadelic, 'One Nation Under a Groove' (G Clinton / G Shider / W Morrison / E Krause / F Harrison / T Kendrick / C Branch / O Johnson)

No. 225

The Room Where It Happens: Diversity Demands Good Governance

Screenshot 2019-04-10 at 22.46.19.png

'I’m past patiently waitin’.
I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation. 
Every action’s an act of creation! 
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow. 
For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow.'

‘My Shot’, Lin-Manuel Miranda 

Some time ago I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical, ‘Hamilton’.

It tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers and the man on the 10 dollar bill. He was ‘a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman’ who left the Caribbean to become George Washington’s right-hand man and the first Secretary of the Treasury.

‘Hamilton’ delivers a joyous, articulate mix of old school rap, hip hop and R&B. There’s strong characterisation, razor-sharp choreography, lusty singing, propulsive beats and a rotating stage. 

'I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.'

I was particularly struck by the way that rap’s brisk tempo and fluid construction lend themselves so well to a complex narrative. I can’t imagine a more traditional musical format so comfortably conveying, for example, the secret deal in which Washington DC is accepted as the nation’s capital in exchange for federal control over the debts accrued by the separate states.

Miranda has described ‘Hamilton’ as 'the story of America then told by America now.' The London audience when I attended enjoyed the subversion of the independence narrative being related by an ethnically diverse cast. We cheered the villainous King George III as one of our own. And we applauded when Hamilton triumphantly declared: ‘Immigrants! We get the job done!’

One of the key songs in ‘Hamilton’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, reflects on the fact that so many of the critical debates and decisions in history take place behind closed doors.

'We want our leaders to save the day,
But we don't get a say in what they trade away.
We dream of a brand new start,
But we dream in the dark for the most part,
Dark as a tomb where it happens.
I've got to be in
The room where it happens,
I've got to be in the room where it happens.’

'The Room Where It Happens’, Lin-Manuel Miranda 

We may be familiar with this sentiment in the world of business. So often strategies, policies and practice are worked out in camera, in secret, in private; in corridors, over a beer, behind glass walls.

This seems particularly true of smaller and privately owned companies that have grown organically – where founders and leaders have informal, instinctive networks, ways of working and getting things done.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren has observed that non-participation in decision-making presents risks for the excluded.

'If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu.’

Although you’ll hear Agencies talk a good deal nowadays about the imperative of diversity, you’ll not hear them talk too often about good governance. And yet fair and transparent governance is the means by which you can ensure that a diverse workforce creates diverse decision-making. It’s your insurance against group-think and double-talk. It’s the means by which you earn true colleague engagement. There’s no vocation without representation.

A mature business gives proper thought to the composition of its committees and corporate bodies; to participation on boards, excos, platforms and working groups; to the processes by which decisions are made. This is not just about fairness. It’s about effectiveness.

If you do nothing about this, you may find that people will take matters into their own hands.

Shirley Chisholm - photo Irving Penn,  Vogue,  1969

Shirley Chisholm - photo Irving Penn, Vogue, 1969

In 1968 Brooklyn-born Shirley Chisholm was elected the first black woman in Congress. In 1972, campaigning under the slogan ‘Unbought and Unbossed’, she became the first woman and the first African American to run for the Presidential nomination of a major party. Surrounded throughout her career by colleagues who were overwhelmingly white and male, she passed on the following advice:

‘If you wait for a man to give you a seat, you’ll never have one. If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.’ 

No. 224

Who Is Normal? The Strange Beauty of Diane Arbus

Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, NY, 1960, by Diane Arbus

Man in hat, trunks, socks and shoes, Coney Island, NY, 1960, by Diane Arbus

‘You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.'
Diane Arbus

I recently attended an excellent exhibition of the early work of photographer Diane Arbus. (‘Diane Arbus: In the Beginning’ is at The Hayward Gallery, London until 6 May.)

Diane Nemerov was born in New York in 1923. Her parents owned Russek’s, a Fifth Avenue department store, and she grew up in some comfort. At 18 she married her childhood sweetheart, Allan Arbus, and soon after she took up photography. For just over a decade the Arbuses ran a commercial photography business, with Diane contributing as stylist and art director. In 1956 she quit and began life as an independent photographer.

'My favorite thing is to go where I've never been.'

Arbus wandered the streets of New York searching for subjects. She was drawn to Central Park, Times Square and Coney Island; to bars and barbershops, the subway and snack bars, movie theatres and the morgue.

'Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It's what I've never seen before that I recognize.'

Arbus was fascinated by human frailty and eccentricity. Perhaps what we take for ordinary may be worth a second look. Here’s a slim kid with a toy hand grenade, a teenager in a monster mask, a uniformed usher by the box office, an elderly lady in a mink stole. Parents carry sleeping children. Here’s an anxious man yelling in the street, a couple arguing - snarling, eyes bulging - a mannequin in an evening gown.  The world seems somehow crooked, distorted, out of joint.

‘I am full of a sense of promise, like I often have, the feeling of always being at the beginning.’

Arbus’ pictures suggest stories that are just beyond reach, incomplete narratives that are about to begin. A down-at-heel Santa Claus walks the city streets. A boy in an ill-fitting boater wears a ‘Bomb Hanoi’ badge.  An elderly Uncle Sam looks depressed and tired in his tatty apartment. 

'If you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic.’

Arbus is also interested in our relationship with entertainment. She photographs the TV and the cinema screen: a blonde about to be kissed, a screaming woman with blood on her hands, a man being choked to death. She is particularly drawn to the world of stage performers and circus sideshows. She introduces us to trapeze artists, strippers and cha cha dancers; wrestlers, fire eaters and female impersonators. A clown in a fedora. We meet ‘The Human Pincushion’ and ‘The Jungle Creep.’ Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Ratoucheff gives us his Maurice Chevalier impersonation.

'A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.'

In the past some critics expressed suspicion of Arbus. Is she just giving us a ‘freak show’? Is she exploiting the vulnerable? Is she lacking empathy or compassion?

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959, by Diane Arbus

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, L.I. 1959, by Diane Arbus

I suspect that 2019 eyes have a quite different response. Arbus is clearly curious about the margins of conventional society. But she is neither judgemental nor sentimental. She takes people for who they are, revealing their essential humanity. Her pictures have a strange beauty.

'I work from awkwardness. By that I mean I don't like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.'

I left the exhibition concluding that we are united by our flaws and foibles, our kinks and quirks. We all have idiosyncrasies. They’re what make us attractive, what make us human.

‘The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.’

In the communication industry, we are constantly considering core consumers and bull’s-eye behaviour. We like to determine average users, typical targets. But these calculations often take us to the anodyne, bland and boring. They represent a filtered reality, an edited truth.

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962  , by Diane Arbus

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 , by Diane Arbus

Arbus asks us to think again: Who is normal?

Surely in 2019 normal is diverse, irregular, bizarre and offbeat. It is strange and peculiar, different and contradictory, shifting and changeable. Normal is whatever we want it to be.

I’m reminded of a line I recently heard from jazz futurist Kamasi Washington: 

‘Diversity is not something to be tolerated, but something to be celebrated.’

In 1971 Diane Arbus took her own life. She had been suffering from depression, an illness that had also afflicted her mother. She was 48 years old.

In one of her pictures from 1960 a homeless man in a shabby overcoat, trilby hat and zip-up sweater holds a dollar bill to the viewer. It is as if to say: 

‘What’s this for? Is it really worth it?’ 

 

No. 223

Some People Don’t Bounce: The Price We Pay for the Choices We Make

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

'What is the key word today? Disposable. The more you can throw it away the more it’s beautiful. The car, the furniture, the wife, the children—everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing today is—shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself—he’d go to church, start a revolution—something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.'

Solomon, ‘The Price’

I recently saw an excellent production of Arthur Miller’s 1968 play, ‘The Price’ (Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 27 April).

Two brothers meet for the first time in sixteen years to sell their family furniture, which has been stored in the attic of a New York brownstone. Back in the 1920s their parents had been wealthy, but they were impoverished by the Great Depression. Victor, the younger brother, missed out on his education to care for his father. He became a New York cop and is now nearing cash-strapped retirement. Walter, the older of the two, broke free from the family and embarked on a career as a successful surgeon. 

‘The Price’ is a play about the corrosive effect of financial strife on family relationships; about a family at war with itself.

It draws on Miller’s own experiences of the Depression, which at its height saw one quarter of Americans out of work. Before the 1929 Crash his father owned a women’s clothing factory employing 400 people. He was wiped out and left traumatised, withdrawing into silent introspection. 

In the play Victor observes of the brothers’ father:

‘Well, some men don’t bounce, you know.’

Running through the drama is a conversation with an elderly furniture dealer, Solomon, who is carrying out a valuation of the attic’s contents. We gradually realise that the whole play is in fact a valuation: of choices made, paths taken, compromises reached.

In an interview in 1969 Miller explained:

'The play is about people who make decisions in life and the price they pay for those decisions. In this case, the price of being a socially responsible individual and the price of being a successful one.'

Walter has sacrificed his family relationships in the pursuit of career and status. He endeavours to make recompense now with financial and employment offers to Victor. But he comes to appreciate that forgiveness cannot be bought.

Victor, in his turn, has sacrificed his education and career for his father. But he has also deceived himself in the narrative he tells about the past. He and his father were, in fact, complicit in their co-dependency.

‘We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know.’

I left ‘The Price’ reflecting on the fact that all the choices we make in life come with a price attached. When in business we opt for one course of action, we leave another unrealised. For every decisive action, there is a road not taken, an opportunity not fulfilled. We promote one candidate, we disappoint someone else. We prioritise one function, we relegate another. We invest in one initiative, we disinvest in others. Decisions carry costs.

This suggests some questions.

Do we consistently face up to the price we must pay for the choices we make? Do we truly own the consequences of our actions? Or do we, like the brothers, deceive ourselves, avoiding ‘the truths we know but dare not face’?

Sadly it’s never easy to revisit missed opportunities after the fact, to remedy past mistakes, to make up for lost time. As Victor’s wife Esther observes:

‘All these years we’ve been saying, once we get the pension we’re going to start to live… It’s like pushing against a door for twenty-five years and suddenly it opens… and we stand there.’

 
'When love breaks down,
The things you do
To stop the truth from hurting you.
When love breaks down,
The lies we tell
They only serve to fool ourselves.’

Prefab Sprout, 'When Love Breaks Down' (P McAloon)

No. 222

Bad Timing: It’s Not Enough to Be Right, You Need to Be Right at the Right Time

Film still: Shanghai Express

Film still: Shanghai Express

‘If you’re thinking of reforming me, you might as well save yourself the trouble.’

In the 1932 movie ‘Shanghai Express’ an eccentric crew are thrown together in the First Class carriage of a train travelling through civil war torn China. They include an English missionary, a French veteran, an American gambler, a German opium dealer and a Chinese spy. 

Marlene Dietrich plays the elegant and enigmatic Shanghai Lily. She discovers that a rather reserved British army doctor, Captain Harvey, is a fellow passenger. Five years earlier they were in a relationship, but they separated when she tested his faith in her.

‘I wanted to be certain that you loved me. Instead I lost you.’

Lily has since adopted the life of a courtesan.

'It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.'

It becomes clear that Lily and Harvey still carry a torch for one another. Will they be able to rekindle their romance despite everything that has happened?

Director Josef von Sternberg uses ‘Shanghai Express’ as a vehicle for Dietrich’s extraordinary beauty. He employs a raft of lighting techniques and costume choices to draw our gaze.

We see Dietrich in the dark, in torchlight, emerging from the shadows; Dietrich behind a lace veil, in a feathered cap, her face framed by fur. There’s Dietrich in a long silk dress, in a chain-mesh collar, in a kimono; Dietrich with a blonde bob, backlit. Big eyes, hooded lids, hypnotic gaze. Dietrich walks through steam, peers through glass. She smokes a cigarette. We are fascinated by her angular cheekbones, her elegantly trimmed eyebrows, her sad sombre voice. Dietrich in jewels, in the Captain’s hat, in tears, in prayer. 

As the train makes its way across China the two former lovers confront each other. Harvey professes his enduring commitment to her. Lily is confused.

'When I needed your faith, you withheld it. And now, when I don't need it, and don't deserve it, you give it to me.'

Film still: Shanghai Express

Film still: Shanghai Express

Lily’s frustration will resonate with many people watching. Bad timing has arrested many budding romances before they can blossom. Bad timing can cool passion, frustrate affection, dampen enthusiasm. The moment passes, the opportunity evaporates, circumstances change. If only things had been different…

It’s true of business too.

Looking back over my years in advertising I can recall sound appointments that failed for being premature or belated; promising careers that floundered because engagement was misaligned; robust initiatives that ran aground for being ahead of their time or behind the times. Too late into digital, too early into content, too soon with media planning… 

Arrive before there’s Client appetite or commercial need and you’ll not be properly appreciated. Come too late and you’ll miss the boat. It’s not enough to be right. You need to be right at the right time.

As the Shanghai Express progresses across China, it is hijacked by rebel soldiers. Lily saves her former lover’s life, but he once again misinterprets events. 

Dietrich turns the light out and is alone with a cigarette. 

Finally, to everyone’s relief, Harvey sees sense. He catches up with Lily on a crowded Shanghai Station platform.

‘There’s only one thing I want to tell you… How in the name of Confucius can I kiss you with all these people around?’

'Now what am I supposed to do,
When I want you in my world?
How can I want you for myself,
When I'm already someone’s girl?

I guess I'll see you next lifetime.
No hard feelings.
I guess I'll see you next lifetime.
I'm gonna be there.'

Erykah Badu, 'Next Lifetime'

No. 221

The Quiet Achiever: Learning Lessons from RBG

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Photograph by Irving Penn / © Condé Nast 1993

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Photograph by Irving Penn / © Condé Nast 1993

'I am a Brooklynite, born and bred, a first generation American on my father’s side, barely second generation on my mother’s. What has become of me could happen only in America. Neither of my parents had the means to attend college, but both taught me to love learning, to care about people, and to work hard for whatever I wanted or believed in.' 
Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I recently watched an excellent documentary about US Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (‘RBG’). It’s the story of an incredibly talented, resilient woman who overcame the odds, step-by-step, to help build a secure legal framework for women’s equality in the US.

Ruth Bader was born in 1933 in a working-class neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and earned the family nickname Kiki for being a ‘kicky baby.’ She was encouraged to take her education seriously by her beloved mother, who passed away just as she finished high school. She studied government at Cornell and married fellow student Martin Ginsburg a month after graduating. They had their first child in 1955, and subsequently both enrolled at Harvard Law School.

Soon, however, Martin contracted testicular cancer. Ruth found herself caring for her young daughter and convalescing husband, attending both his classes and her own. 

This was challenging enough. But at Harvard Ruth also had to endure a hostile, male-dominated, environment. There were only eight other women in her class of more than 500, and on joining they were admonished by the Dean for taking the places of men.
 
When in time Martin recovered and graduated, the couple moved to New York so that he could take up a job as a tax lawyer. Ruth completed her degree at Columbia Law School, and was the first woman to be a member of both the Harvard and Columbia Law Reviews. In 1959 she graduated joint-first in class. And yet, when she went looking for work, she didn’t receive one job offer from a New York law firm.

'I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible.'

Ruth settled for a career in academic law, teaching at Rutgers University Law School and at Columbia. At Rutgers she was informed she would be paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband with a well-paid job. 

No surprise perhaps that Ruth gravitated towards the study and teaching of women’s rights. In most states at that time you could be fired for being pregnant; banks required a woman applying for credit to have their husband co-sign; marital rape was rarely prosecuted. Indeed hundreds of separate statutes across the country discriminated on the basis of sex.

‘The gender line helps to keep women not on a pedestal but in a cage.’

In 1972 Ruth co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  Rather than seeking to end all gender discrimination at once, she determined to take it on one law at a time. As Director of the ACLU she challenged laws giving different access to housing benefits to male and female service members; different survivor benefits to men and women; different minimum drinking ages for men and women. She challenged a law enabling women to opt out of jury service. And more besides.

Methodical, precise, considered, Ruth gradually chipped away at the edifice of sex discrimination. She concentrated on winnable cases. Sometimes she represented male plaintiffs to demonstrate that gender discrimination harmed both men and women. She referred to gender rather than sex so as not to distract male judges.

‘I knew that I was speaking to men who didn’t think there was such a thing as gender discrimination. And my job was to tell them that it really exists.’

Between 1973 and 1976 Ruth argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five. This was a step-by-step revolution.

‘This opinion does mark as presumptively invalid a law that denies to women equal opportunity to inspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on what they do.’

In the documentary Ruth’s children bear witness to her phenomenal stamina throughout this period. Sustained by coffee and prunes, she worked into the early hours every night, and was at court by 9-00 the next morning. At the weekend she slept.

Beyond working incredibly hard to achieve one’s goals, there are a number of lessons we can learn from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She teaches us to be clinical and cool headed in the design and execution of strategy; to pick our battles; to fight them in the right order; and to be sure of winning. That way we will win the war.

I was particularly struck by Ruth’s working method. She was not a militant firebrand, given to marching and demonstrating. Rather she was serious and soft-spoken, cautious and careful, reserved and restrained. Her colleagues report that she didn’t do small-talk. She just focused on getting the job done.

'When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.'

Ruth Bader Ginsburg At work

Ruth Bader Ginsburg At work

Ask yourself this: Do you have an RBG in your office? Sitting silently, working diligently. Meticulous and methodical. Shy and self-effacing. The quiet achiever, the unsung hero.

What if she or he is being shouted down, pushed aside, managed and marginalised? What if the conversation is being dominated by the most vocal rather than the best qualified people in the room? Are you doing enough to ensure that the quiet achiever can still be heard?

'We have the oldest written constitution still in force in the world, and it starts out with three words, 'We, the people.''

In 1980 Ruth Bader Ginsberg was appointed to the US Court of Appeals, and in 1993 she became the second woman Justice on the US Supreme Court. In recent years, with liberal Justices in the minority, she has often been a dissenting voice.

Sadly Martin Ginsburg died of cancer in 2010. He and Ruth had been married for 56 years. In December 2018 Ruth, already a two-time survivor of cancer herself, underwent surgery for lung cancer. She was back on the Supreme Court bench eight weeks later. She has recently turned eighty-six.

Just over five feet tall; hair neatly tied back with a scrunchie; serious glasses; vintage earrings; silk shirt and scarf. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is asked how long she can keep going. With lips pursed, she pauses for thought.

‘I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam, and when I can’t that will be the time I will step down.’

Full steam ahead, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

No. 220

Photography as Feeling: Don’t Hide Behind the Tools and Technology

Don McCullin  The Guvnors in Their Sunday Suits

Don McCullin The Guvnors in Their Sunday Suits

'Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see, is what my life is all about.'
Don McCullin

I recently attended an excellent retrospective at Tate Britain of the photographer Don McCullin (until 6 May).

Born in 1935, McCullin grew up in a two-room flat in Finsbury Park, an area that had been battered by war and poverty. His father died when he was 14 and he had to leave school to support his family. He bought his first camera when he was on National Service, and he took to photographing North London’s gangs, tearaways and immigrants. Some of his pictures were picked up by The Observer newspaper.

'I fell in love with photography accidentally – it chose me, I didn't choose it.'

In 1964 The Observer commissioned McCullin to cover the civil war in Cyprus.

A running man in a raglan coat, with a peaked cap and Stenn gun, casts a crisp shadow in the Limassol sun. Two dead men lie in a pool of blood on the cool tiled floor. A child grasps his despairing mother by the hand. The soles of four corpses look out at us from the back of a Land Rover. These are scenes of Biblical sadness.

Don McCullin  ‘The Cyprus Civil War’

Don McCullin ‘The Cyprus Civil War’

'Cyprus left me with the beginnings of a self-knowledge, and the beginning of what they call empathy. I found I was able to share other people’s emotional experiences, live with them silently, transmit them.'

Soon McCullin was off covering wars and civil strife all over the world for The Observer and The Sunday Times. The Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, Beirut, Iraq, Ethiopia - the conflicts that dominated our news bulletins for over half a century. Unflinching, he examined pain, fear, cruelty, death and grief; he exposed the realities of war, the starvation, shell shock, looting and torture; the dark fruits of this bitter earth.

He worried that he was becoming addicted to hostilities.

'I used to chase wars like a drunk chasing a can of lager.’

But McCullin had a strong sense of moral obligation, of duty to report what he saw.

'You have to bear witness. You cannot just look away.'

Of course, continuous exposure to human suffering and inhuman cruelty came at a price. McCullin was troubled by doubts, haunted by nightmares.

'I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: ‘I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.’'

Periodically McCullin took assignments in the UK. But even here his conscience drew him to ‘social wars’- to document the poverty, inequality and deprivation on our doorsteps. He observed the homeless in London’s East End; considered the effects of industrial decay in Bradford, Doncaster and Wigan; captured the harsh economic realities in Hartlepool, Liverpool and Sunderland.

Homeless men stand around the fire, sleep amid the litter. Heads down, eyes shot, faces grubby, hands knotted. Kids play in the rubble, unemployed men forage for coal, a courting couple take a drag on a cigarette. Parkas, prams and flat caps. Cold rooms and damp walls. England ‘laughing in the face of defeat’.

'Photography is the truth if it’s being handled by a truthful person.'

Don McCullin  Gangs of Boys Escaping CS Gas Fired by British Soldiers

Don McCullin Gangs of Boys Escaping CS Gas Fired by British Soldiers

If you’re familiar with photographers, you’ll know that they like to discuss their equipment: lenses and light exposure, apertures and aspect ratios. I was quite struck by McCullin’s inclination to focus on human qualities.

‘The photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same photographs. They might not be as sharp, but they would certainly say the same thing.’

Indeed McCullin describes his craft as a matter of feeling rather than technical expertise.

'Photography for me is not looking, it's feeling. If you can't feel what you're looking at, then you're never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.'

There’s a lesson for us all here.

In creative professions we often hide behind the tools and technology; the gear and gadgets; the arcane language and expert jargon. But the best practitioners are often characterised by their humanity; their feeling for others; their empathy.

A recent BBC documentary (‘Don McCullin: Looking for England’) followed the photographer on a tour round his home country.

‘I’m never bored by trying to discover what makes me tick and this country tick.’

In Eastbourne he comes across a bunch of intrepid old folk in anoraks - watching a brass band play, eating sandwiches in the rain.

‘Terrible weather,’ says McCullin to one of them.
‘But the show must go on’, comes the reply.

This tickles McCullin. He can barely hold himself together. He wipes a tear from his eye.

'This bitter earth,
Well, what a fruit it bears.
What good is love,
That no one shares?
And if my life is like the dust,
That hides the glow of a rose.
What good am I?
Heaven only knows.

Oh, this bitter earth,
Yes, can it be so cold?
Today you're young,
Too soon you're old.
But while a voice
Within me cries,
I'm sure someone
May answer my call.
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all.’

Dinah Washington, ‘This Bitter Earth’ (Clyde Lovern Otis)

 

No. 219 

 

The Freezer in the Garden Shed: An Untidy Life Can Spark Joy Too

Village in Winter. Isaac Levitan

Village in Winter. Isaac Levitan

Some time in the late ‘70s my parents decided to invest in a freezer. As they were catering for five kids, they selected a large chest-style model. It was so big that it wouldn’t fit in the kitchen, and our new arrival was installed with some ceremony in the wooden shed in the back garden. There it co-habited with an unruly assortment of paint pots, old curtains and rusty lawnmowers.

Mum bought a book dedicated to cooking for the freezer and embarked on an industrial programme manufacturing spaghetti bolognaise and shepherd’s pie for long-term Tupperware storage. (The shadow of nuclear war still hung over us back then and we needed to prepare for every eventuality.) Dad drove down to Bejam in Romford Town Centre and collected a frozen half-pig, thereby securing a near endless supply of pork chops for family suppers.

One evening the Carrolls sat watching telly, having just polished off that week’s third plate of pork chops, oven chips and garden peas. Contented, Dad placed his tray to one side and announced:

‘With our new freezer we may not eat cheaper, but we do eat better.’

The freezer in the garden shed provided many years of solid service. Indeed it was still performing admirably when I left home for Turnpike Lane in the late ‘80s. I confess I rather liked the fact that the family freezer lived in the shed, and I would have been upset if, in some unlikely fit of rationality and conformity, my parents had upgraded it or transferred it to the house.

In the early hours of one cold, snowy winter’s morning my good friend Thommo, also my flatmate at that time, was struggling to get home. He’d had a few beers in town and fallen asleep on the wrong train heading in the wrong direction. He spotted a train destined for Romford and thought at least it was a place he’d visited before. He jumped on board and, having reached the station, trudged through the thick snow to my parents’ home on Heath Park Road.

When Thommo arrived he saw no lights on, no sign of life, and being a considerate soul, he was uncomfortable waking the whole household. And so he made his way to the back garden, let himself into the shed and organised some makeshift bedding on top of the chest freezer.

Early the next day Mum spotted the evidence of an intruder. There were tracks in the snow and the shed was open. She got Dad out of bed, somewhat grumpy, and pushed him out of the back door to deal with the situation.

‘Oi, you, get out of there!’ Dad cried in a booming voice with a gruff note of intimidation.

A timid Thommo, hung-over and frozen to the bone, poked his head out of the shed door and explained the situation. He was welcomed into the warmth, fed and packed off to work.

This modest incident became a staple of Carroll family folklore. My Mum, a devout Catholic, subsequently made a small wooden sign and hung it above the freezer in the garden shed:

‘Here, on one cold winter’s night, slept Thommo. It might have been Christ.’

We spend a good deal of time nowadays ironing out the rough edges in our lives, smoothing over the contours. We are increasingly obsessed with tidying things up, organising them away, decluttering and streamlining. We want frictionless experiences, seamless journeys, logical order, rational consistency.

But friction creates experiences, and journeys begin at the seams. Life happens in the folds and creases, in the spaces between. Life happens around the freezer in the garden shed.

I have over the years grown comfortable with difference and discrepancy. I no longer demand that everything should conform and make sense. And I feel no compunction to tidy my world into neat compartments that spark joy. I think I may be happier that way. As my Dad might have said:

‘You don’t live cheaper, but you do live better.’

No. 218

Bonnard: Liberating Oneself from the Literal

Pierre Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath, 1936. Photograph: Tate

Pierre Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath, 1936. Photograph: Tate

‘I leave it…I come back…I do not let myself become absorbed by the object itself.’
Pierre Bonnard

I recently visited an exhibition of the work of French Post-Impressionist painter, Pierre Bonnard (Tate Modern, London until 6 May).

The table is laid with a red gingham cloth. There is fruit, a water jug, a coffee pot. The dog perches. We see a vase of flowers, a bowl of lemons, of peaches, a notebook and pen. Amber walls. Summer heat. The door to the garden is open. A lush lavender landscape reaches out to us across that table, through the French windows.  A sun-drenched vista of greens and yellows beckons beyond that open door. A vibrant exterior life viewed from a secluded interior.

A woman is observed in the mirror on the mantelpiece. Her head turned away, looking past us and through us. A woman absorbed in her grooming, scrubbing her neck, pinning her hair. A woman framed by a bathtub, illuminated by the brightly coloured tiles, distorted by the water. It is as if we have just walked into the room.

We are invited into the intimate domestic world of the artist and his wife, Marthe - a world of silent companionship, of lethargy and ennui. Marthe passes the time with coffee and private thought. She nibbles at fruit and talks to the dog. She escapes to her bath - ‘the only luxury she had ever longed for.’ Often unwell, she has been prescribed daily water treatments to soothe her.

Renowned for his sunny landscapes and vivid colours, Bonnard is sometimes described as a ‘painter of happiness.’ But he himself is not so sure:

‘He who sings is not always happy.’

Indeed Bonnard seems somewhat removed - a man withdrawn, observing his home and home-life from a distance, through a window or doorway, across a table; through bands of colour, layers of memory. Figures are like ghosts. They move in and out of focus, in and out of frame. Self-portraits seem anxious, mournful.

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'One always talks of surrendering to nature. There is also such a thing as surrendering to the picture.'

Occasionally Bonnard employs photography, not as a record of actuality, but rather to bring to mind natural, informal poses; to suggest incidental occasions, snapshots of time.

Bonnard describes himself as ‘the last of the Impressionists’, and he does indeed paint impressions – recollections of lost moments, remembrance of things past. He works in the studio, from memory rather than from life. Taking months and sometimes years to complete a canvas, he lets his imagination recreate events; frees his intense pigments to dissolve into one another; allows colours to take over from objects, patterns to take over from people, ideas to take over from accurate representation.

‘The presence of the object…is a hindrance to the painter when he is painting. The point of departure for a painting being an idea.’

There is a lesson for us all here.

Of course, brands often have to reside in a real world of cold calculation and rational reflection. But the best brands can also abstract themselves from reality, liberate themselves from the literal. They inhabit a landscape of impressions, feelings, moods and colours; a place of emotional truth, of memories, dreams and desires; the world as we recall it, as we imagine it, as we want it to be.

Sometimes, like Bonnard, we need to learn to let go.

'So far away from you, and all your charms,
Just out of reach of my two empty arms.
Each night in dreams I see your face,
Memories time cannot erase.
Wide awake, and find you gone,
And I'm so blue, and all alone.
So far away from you, and all your charms,
Just out of reach of my two empty arms.’


Percy Sledge, ‘Just Out of Reach'  (Virgil "Pappy” Stewart)

No. 217

The Longest Kiss: Turning Constraints to Your Advantage


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Cary Grant enters a Rio hotel room with Ingrid Bergman. Bag down, gloves off, hat discarded on the chair. In silence. They walk out to the balcony, embrace and kiss. She sighs and they look into each other’s eyes.

‘It’s nice out here. Let’s not go out for dinner. Let’s stay in.’

Between tender kisses, they discuss the chicken she’s planning to cook for him. They’ll keep the washing-up to a minimum.

Bergman leans on Grant’s shoulder as he takes her back inside to make a phone call. They kiss again, and hold each other tight as he picks up a message from his hotel. He has to leave.

Bergman: ‘This is a very strange love affair.’
Grant: ‘Why?’
Bergman: ‘Maybe the fact that you don't love me.’

They make their way to the door, arm in arm, kiss goodbye and agree to meet later.
He slips away.

This scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1942 movie ‘Notorious’ was celebrated as ‘the longest kiss in the history of the movies’. It lasts just under three minutes, but is not in fact a single kiss. Rather it is a series of kisses interrupted by conversation, movement and action.

It’s a memorable scene because it seems so intimate, natural, real. We believe that Bergman and Grant are genuinely in love. When Hitchcock carefully choreographed the actors, he may well have been seeking to communicate unaffected romantic truth. But he was also keen not to fall foul of the Hays Production Code, which prohibited ‘scenes of passion’, and restricted any screen kiss to no more than three seconds.

Constraints focus the mind, demand our attention. They lay down the gauntlet; prompt our rebellious instincts; challenge us to think laterally, to circumvent the regulations, to sidestep the rules. And sometimes they produce truly memorable responses.

When one reflects on historic cigarette and alcohol advertising, it sometimes seems that they hit the creative heights because of, rather than despite, legal restrictions. Ads for the likes of Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges verged on the surreal. And I well recall a poster for the Winston brand:

We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s a stuffed aardvark.’

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Necessity has been the mother of invention in many great communication campaigns. Sometimes the constraint is legislative. Levi’s ‘Swimmer’ (1992) featured a number of property owners signalling consent because the advertising authorities didn’t want to celebrate trespassing. Sometimes the constraint is practical – you simply don’t have much time or money. Consider most Madness videos. And sometimes the constraint can even be self-imposed. When Justin Moore was creating a six-minute film for Johnnie Walker, ‘The Man Who Walked Around the World’ (2009), he insisted that it should be one continuous shot - no cuts, no editing.

When you see rules, restrictions and regulations, don’t skulk off complaining and feeling sorry for yourself. Embrace the constraints. Take up the challenge. See where the limitations take you. Even consider setting a restriction yourself. You may find that a boring guideline is more inspiring than a blank piece of paper.

As Orson Welles once observed:
'The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.’

Happy Valentine’s Day

No. 216