‘The Landscape of Fact’: How Measurement and Language Can Become Vehicles of Control

Photo: Colin Morgan by David Stewart for The National Theatre

Photo: Colin Morgan by David Stewart for The National Theatre

‘Yes, it is a rich language… full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception — a syntax opulent with tomorrows. It is our response to mud cabins and a diet of potatoes; our only method of replying to … inevitabilities.’

There’s an excellent production of Brian Friel’s 1980 play ‘Translations’ running at the National Theatre in London (until 11 August).

The drama is set in 1833 amongst the Irish-speaking community of Baile Beag, Donegal. Bibulous Hugh, ‘a large man, with residual dignity’, teaches Latin and Greek literature to the local peasantry at his informal ‘hedge school.’ In a ramshackle old barn his students learn grammar and word derivations, and swap quotations from Homer, Tacitus and Virgil.

‘There was an ancient city which, ‘tis said, Juno loved above all the lands. And it was the goddess’s aim and cherished hope that here should be the capital of all nations – should the fates perchance allow that.’

English is rarely spoken in the area ‘and then usually for the purposes of commerce, a use to which [that] tongue seemed particularly suited.’

Meanwhile British troops are camped nearby charting a map of the area for the Ordnance Survey. This entails Anglicising the local place names. So Bun na hAbhann becomes Burnfoot; Druim Dubh becomes Dromduff; and Baile Beag becomes Ballybeg.

Hugh is no admirer of the English language.

‘English succeeds in making it sound…plebeian.’

And he explains to the British sappers that their culture is lost on the Irish.

‘Wordsworth? … No, I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island.’

The British are also in the process of establishing a national education system in Ireland. This is one of the first state-run, standardised systems of primary education in the world. English will be the official language, and the new system will make the traditional Irish-speaking ‘hedge schools’ redundant.

The drama prompts us to think about control. The British claim that their measurements and mapping will lead to fairer, more accurate taxation. But there’s an underlying suspicion that darker motives are at play. On the face of it the new school system will be superior to the old, and some in the Irish community regard English as a gateway tongue to travel and better prospects. But Hugh is concerned that Ireland is losing its cultural identity.

‘Remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen — to use an image you’ll understand — it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of … fact.’ 

We may recognise some of these themes in the world of commerce. Periodically our leaders, our owners and our Clients seek to monitor our output and ways of working; to map the landscape and contours of the business. We embrace timesheets and targets; scales and scorecards; ratios and rotas. Of course, it’s all in the interests of efficiency and best practice. ‘What gets measured gets done’ and so forth.

But there’s often a misgiving that measurement is a means of re-ordering priorities, of setting a new agenda, of enacting control; and a concern that the measures can become an end in themselves. As Sir John Banham, the former President of the CBI once observed:

‘In business we value most highly that which we can measure most precisely… Consequently we often invest huge amounts in being precisely wrong rather than seeking to be approximately right.’

Similarly we may find that our leaders, owners and Clients seek to impose their own language upon us. We are taught catchphrases and buzzwords; axioms and aphorisms; jargon and generalisation. Listen and repeat. Listen and repeat. As we endeavour to wise up, we dumb down. As our ambition expands, our vocabulary shrinks.

In his recent documentary ‘On Jargon’ (BBC4, 27 May), the brilliant writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades contrasted jargon with slang.

‘Jargon is everything that slang is not. Centrifugal, evasive, drably euphemistic, unthreatening, conformist. ... Whilst slang belongs to the gutter, jargon belongs to the executive estate. It is the clumsy, graceless, inelegant, aesthetically bereft expression of houses with three garages; of business people who instinctively refer to their workmates as colleagues…It is delusional. It inflates pomposity, officiousness and self-importance rather than punctures them. Slang mocks. Jargon crawls on its belly - giving great feedback, hoping for promotion.’

Now I should concede that I have been no stranger to aphorisms. When I was in leadership positions, I was prone to headlining new agendas; to punching out big themes. And I have often referred to my workmates as colleagues.

Of course, it is the responsibility of leaders in modern businesses to achieve corporate clarity and coherence. But it is imperative in so doing, to avoid clichéd conventional wisdom; ‘newspeak’ and ‘doublethink.’ And it is critical that independent thought and freedom of expression are not victims of the process.

Sometimes, in seeking to control difference, we simply succeed in making everyone the same.

One of the last of the great Cavalier Clients was Geoffrey Probert, who ran the deodorant and oral categories at Unilever. He was mindful that Agencies were at great pains to fit in with their Clients; to conform to their language and way of working. He warned against it.

‘Agencies can spend too much time trying to be like their clients. We’ve got loads of people just like us. We need you to be different. That’s the point. Just concentrate on doing the things we can’t do.’

No. 184



Brian Friel, the Creative Fool and the Poetry of Place Names

‘And even though they told themselves they were here because of the remote possibility of a cure, they knew in their hearts they had come not to be cured but for confirmation that they were incurable; not in hope but for the elimination of hope; for the removal of that final impossible chance – that’s why they came - to seal their anguish, for the content of a finality.’

Frank, Faith Healer (by Brian Friel)

Brian Friel, the dramatist and short story writer who died last year, was often called ‘the Irish Chekhov.’ In magnificent works like Translations, Aristocrats and Dancing at Lughnasa he wrote of rural communities haunted by history and the scars of colonisation, by lost language and abandoned hope. His plays are nostalgic, funny, humane and intelligent.

I recently saw an excellent production of Friel’s 1979 play Faith Healer at the Donmar Warehouse (running until 20 August). The play considers issues of truth and memory through what was at the time an innovative monologue structure where three characters give three very different accounts of the same events. Faith Healer prompted a number of thoughts about the craft of creativity.


The Creative Fool?

‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition.’
Brian Friel

In Part 3 of Faith Healer, Teddy, the Cockney talent manager takes to the stage. He is a showman and raconteur, perky and perceptive. Having had years of working with creative performers, he offers his own thoughts on the keys to success.

‘Did you ever look back at all the great artists – Old Freddy [Astaire] here, Lillie Langtry, Sir Laurence Olivier, Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields – and did you ever ask yourself what makes them all top-liners, what have they all got in common? Okay, I’ll tell you. Three things. Number one: they’ve got ambition this size. Okay? Number two they’ve got a talent that is sensational and unique – there’s only one Sir Laurence – right? Number three: not one of them has two brains to rub together.’

Teddy’s judgement is of course harsh and flawed. The great creative talents I have worked with were far from stupid. However, I think there may be something in what he’s saying. Often creative people are more emotionally intelligent than conventionally academic. Orthodox brains deal in history, hard facts and hard data; they like science and certainty. Creative minds on the other hand are more intuitive, instinctive, inquisitive. They are comfortable in uncharted territory, at ease with the unexplained and unresolved.

As the musician Nick Cave said in the excellent 2014 documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth:
‘I’m not interested in that which I fully understand.’

Sometimes I suspect we have a systemic, societal problem on our hands. Institutional and corporate cultures have a way of marginalising open and inquiring minds. They prefer obedience to rebellion, discipline to dreaming. They often denounce the creative spirit as vague, fanciful and naïve. ( It's a theme Sir Ken pursues with great eloquence. ) In another of Friel’s plays, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, he suggests that our schools iron out our emotional selves.

‘They were good times…before we were educated out of our emotions.’

Nonetheless, we should reassure ourselves that emotional intelligence is at least better understood by the general public. Time Out recently reported a remark overheard on the Tube:

‘I’m not stupid. I’m dumb. It’s different.’

The Poetry of Place Names

‘Aberarder, Aberayron,
Llangranog, Llangurig,
Abergorlech, Abergynolwyn,
Llandefeilog, Llanerchymedd,
Aberhosan, Aberporth…’

At the beginning of Faith Healer, Frank, the itinerant faith healer of the title seems to be speaking a foreign language. Is it Gaelic? Is it a mystical chant relating to his profession? We then realise he is incanting a list of Welsh villages that he has visited over the course of his career.

There’s a rhythm and poetry in place names, a romance and resonance about them. Each town name suggests its own unique history and community, myths and untold stories. Places we’ll never visit or never know; lives we’ll never learn about or understand.

Consider how the potency of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is enhanced by his repeated reference to particular locations from across the United States, each with its own imagined associations.

‘Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.’

The world of popular song has also long been familiar with the poetry of place names. Early in his career as a songwriter, Jimmy Webb penned a huge hit for Glen Campbell.  ‘By the Time I Get To Phoenix’ tugged at the heartstrings as it related the thoughts of a disappointed lover driving through Phoenix, Arizona, across New Mexico to Albuquerque and then onto Oklahoma. It's a song that paints pictures as it progresses.

Campbell seemed alert to the fact that in part the lyric’s resonance derived from its locations. He called Webb to ask for more of the same.

‘Can you write me a song about a town?’ 

When the songwriter hesitated, Campbell pressed him.

Well. Just something geographical.’

Webb went on to write the glorious Wichita Lineman.

Inevitably one has to ask whether we in the world of marketing and communications properly capitalise on this theme. Actually, I think over the years a good deal of compelling creative work has demonstrated the poetry of place names.

In my youth kids were told that if they didn’t drink milk, they’d only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley. Many will recall how the snack brand Phileas Fogg made light of its prosaic origins in Medomsley Road, Consett. More recently our food, supermarket and restaurant brands have suggested that specificity of origin justifies premium.

And then, of course, there’s my favourite: the ‘70s ad for Campari, featuring the proudly proletarian Lorraine Chase.

‘Were you truly wafted here from paradise?’
‘Nah, Luton Airport.’


Finding the Universal in the Particular

‘In the particular is contained the universal.’
James Joyce

Perhaps there is a broader lesson we should learn here. James Joyce said that he wrote about Dublin because it was the world he knew best and because he believed that universal truths were revealed in the particular. 

Given that in marketing we seek to express unifying truths, do we subscribe to Joyce’s wisdom?

I’m inclined to say that nowadays we too often leap directly to the universal, skipping the particular along the way. We are nervous of specificity, naturally inclined towards archetypes and stereotypes. We are predisposed to grand sweeping statements and generalisations. And this is especially the case with bigger brands, operating across wider geographies, with broader concepts.

Maybe we should just occasionally think small to act big.