NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 1

Damola suggested that I could supplement the blog with a regular newsletter.

I thought I might make some broad observations about business prompted by plays, films, art, articles and so forth.

So here are this week’s notes from the hinterland…

If We Rid Ourselves of Our Demons, We’ll Lose Our Angels Too

In a recent Desert Island Discs, Stephen Fry quoted Tennessee Williams: ‘If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels too.’

Creative businesses are often confronted with behaviour that is unreliable and unruly, eccentric and erratic. If we expect unconventional answers, we should not be surprised when they come from unconventional sources. Creative talent rarely arrives with a diploma for good behaviour.

And yet creative businesses also have staff that need protecting and values that need sustaining. So where should we draw the line?

Fair Play?

I saw the new Marber play, The Red Lion, at the National Theatre. It’s a compelling piece about life in lower league football. It boasts rich language, good observations on masculinity and some very funny moments.

In the programme notes the former England cricket captain Mike Brearley considers the ‘gang culture’ and ‘mutual humiliation’ at the heart of modern sport.

‘A young middle order batsman who murmured sycophantically to [the bowler} Fred Trueman on his way back to the Pavilion, ‘That was a fine delivery, Fred’ – received the reply ‘Aye, and it were wasted on thee.’

There is a fine line between such more or less legitimate discomfiting gestures and messages on the one hand, and behaviour that goes beyond the spirit of the game on the other…

Sport could not have arisen without individual competitiveness, ambition and Oedipal striving. But nor could it have arisen without love, cooperation and respect.’ 

As ever, sport poses questions that are just as relevant to business and life. What is the appropriate level of competitiveness and rivalry in the era of partnership and collaboration?

The Same But Different

I watched a very funny screwball comedy from 1937. In The Awful Truth Irene Dunne and Cary Grant spar with each other over their divorce.

Lucy: ‘Things are just the same as they always were, only you’re the same as you were too, so I guess things will never be the same again.’

Jerry: ‘You’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool and I’m not now. So long as I’m different, don’t you think that…well maybe things could be the same again…only a little different, huh?’

It struck me that this is an age-old yearning that applies as much to business as to love. We want to embrace change, but somehow to acknowledge timeless truths. The same but different…

Multi-tasking v Mono-tasking

The Beckett radio play All That Fall was recently performed at the Barbican for an audience sitting in deckchairs. Though it sounds suspiciously like physical theatre, I have to say it was an excellent experience. In the play Mr Rooney demands:

‘Once and for all, do not ask me to speak and move at the same time. I shall not say this in this life again.’

I’m with Mr Rooney. I have always been more a mono-tasker than a multi-tasker. I was encouraged by recent research that suggests the productivity associated with multi-tasking is a myth. Some have suggested it should be called ‘multi-switching’ rather than multi-tasking.

A Lawyer in Heaven

A Man Reading (Saint Ivo?) about 1450, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden

A Man Reading (Saint Ivo?)
about 1450, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden

At a visit to the National Gallery yesterday I noticed this excellent painting of Saint Ivo by the Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden. Ivo is celebrated as 'the patron saint of lawyers and an advocate of the poor'…

 

 

 

 

 

 

No. 38

Pretentious? Nous?

Philosophy, Salvator Rosa

Philosophy, Salvator Rosa

When I went to school there were the Sports Guys and the Music Guys.

The Sports Guys liked doing circuit training, spraying Ralgex and making noises with their studs in the shower. The Music Guys wore heavy tweed overcoats, pored over the NME crossword and argued about the relative merits of Joy Division and Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King. I liked both categories, but fundamentally I guess I was a Music Guy.

I went to college equipped with Country Born hair gel, ‘fu shoes and Radio London mix tapes. I covered my walls with album covers from Wah, Defunkt and Echo and the Bunnymen. I danced all night to James Brown and Washington Go Go. (Mine was an awkward, heavy-shoe shuffle that alienated girls more than it attracted them.)

I confess I became somewhat pretentious. But I imagine it was an innocent sort of pretentiousness. A love of words and ideas and debate. Of music, books and film.

Obviously pretentiousness is somewhat silly and self-important, but that’s part of its charm. Look at Salvator Rosa in the self portrait above from the National Gallery. He’s painted himself as a sensitive, brooding philosopher , braving a dark, stormy world. He’s carrying a Latin inscription (natch) that reads ‘Keep silent unless you have something more important to say than silence’. How absurd, how pretentious, how cool…

 

Self Portrait in a Turban, Duncan Grant   1961 Estate of Duncan Grant courtesy Henrietta Garnett

Self Portrait in a Turban, Duncan Grant 1961 Estate of Duncan Grant courtesy Henrietta Garnett

 

Last summer I visited Charleston, the Sussex country home and social hub of the Bloomsbury art set between the wars. They painted the walls and furniture, they painted each other, they discussed pacifism, ballet and the global financial crisis. They made a show of drinking coffee rather than tea. To be honest I didn’t love all the decorative artwork and I wasn’t too sure about their sleeping arrangements. But I had to admire the fact that they had a view about the world, a design for living.

When I left college I fell into advertising as I thought it was one of the few professions where we Music Guys were welcome. Advertising is an art not a science, it’s creative persuasion, lateral thought. Advertising folk cultivated curious facial hair, absurd spectacles and MA1 Flight Jackets. I felt at home.

In the ’90s our Agency produced the Levi’s campaign and I recall it referencing Ansel Adams, Hunter S Thompson, Rodchenko, Bill Brandt, Burt Lancaster and more besides. Pretentious perhaps, but also bracing stuff.

Now let’s be clear. I’m certainly not a subscriber to the view that advertising is art. At its best it’s creativity applied to a commercial end. But I do believe that creativity needs to be inspired, catalysed and nourished by a broader set of cultural references and ideas.

Of late I’ve begun to  wonder whether we Music Guys have lost our way and our voice a little. I’m concerned that there may not be enough people discussing arthouse movies, German dance troupes, experimental theatre. Shouldn’t the Agency be abuzz with fevered debate about Hockney and Hirst? Shouldn’t creative reviews be inspired by more  than YouTube? I worry in fact that we have become less pretentious.

Perhaps people work so hard nowadays that they don’t have time to develop what Denis Healey called a ‘hinterland’. Maybe it’s straitened times. We want to be seen as sensible, rational, commercial. Maybe it’s Anglo Saxon reserve. We apply a blanket pejorative to anything slightly outside the norms of conversation and thought. Perhaps it’s British anti-intellectualism. Our TV is dominated by unreality shows, costume anti-dramas, middle brow mundanity (what Simon Schama recently labelled ‘cultural necrophilia’). Our Queen prefers Lambourn to Glyndebourne. Our Prime Minister prefers tennis to Tennyson. And his favourite read is a cook book. Maybe we’re just too busy jogging.

Whatever the source of the problem, l’ve come to rue this loss of pretentiousness. I wish people more often cited the marginal and the maddening, the absurd and the abstruse from the world of art, academia and literature. Not just because it’s interesting, challenging, funny. But because today’s obscure eccentric is tomorrow’s bright young thing. Because creativity’s favourite bedfellows are difference and diversity.

So I’ve determined that I’m going to be pretentious in 2012. And I’ll encourage everyone else to do the same.

Honi soit qui mal y pense…

First published: BBH Labs  10/02/2012

No. 11