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


‘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.

'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?


'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