Fear and Loathing in Bristol. 8.06.1984

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The easily offended should look away. The following is from another age. 

In 1984,  I was 23, an account man at McCormick Publicis in the Edgeware Road and – evidently – under the influence of Hunter S Thompson. Six of us took a train from London to Bristol. It seemed prudent to join our Allied Breweries client at the Lager Festival. This was handwritten in the days afterwards.  The change, 35 years on, is that it’s typed. (One or two spellings corrected too.) 

The six McCormick’s people are now, sadly, reduced to five. Chris Ward died much too young on 7th July, 2019.  Mike Brugman, Pete Watkins, Andrew Hawkins, Mark Harvey and I remain in the same pools syndicate, a 35-year-old triumph of optimism over experience. The photos date from back then.

  Chris      Mike       Pete       Andrew       Mark               

S M A L L    B E G I N N I N G S

We weren’t out of the building before the craziness began to take hold. We stepped out into the overcast morning and it hit us like a warm blanket: the day had all the promise of a hot belter – you know the kind – that only mad dogs and advertising men venture out into; raw, crazed and manic.

We walked purposefully. Or, at least, fairly purposefully, towards the taxi rank, Brugman drawing on his cigarette and looking warily at the rest of us.  Mad Mike was known to burn on a short fuse and a couple of Stellas and we weren’t sure of his mood – so we forced ourselves to make interested comments about Greasa’s slacks, creased after a frenzied drive in the B.M. at breakneck speed down the Holiday Inn ramp.

The heat was building, but if any of us had known the terrors that awaited us, there’s little doubt we’d have stayed.

But we forced the pace and took cabs for the station.  The drivers gave us that we-don’t-like-your-kind look and took us several extra blocks to raise the fare.  What the hell; we had money – other people’s money – and adrenalin to burn.

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” murmured Waz.  It was a phrase that was to burn itself into our minds, torturing the innermost chambers of hell that we chose to call intelligence during the alcohol-soaked hours that were to follow.

“Possibly,” croaked Harvey, moving uneasily through the crowd in some pretty suspect deck shoes.

T H E   T E R R I B L E   T R A I N   R I D E

We made for the diner car and took up stations: Brugman on the trash can, Greasa blocking the door.  Watkins was screaming already, and you could sense trouble in the air as the other passengers stared fixedly at the sports pages as they waited in line. Highbrow, low profile Hawkeye took time out to look trapped and helpless, but deep down we all knew he was rotten to the core like the rest of us.

As we started to roll, Watkins forced Guinness and bacon sandwiches on us. When some half-arsed, crazy, gibbering dingbat demands such things, there’s no refusal.  Down, slowly, and then less slowly, it went; like warm carb-grease and blotting paper.  An assault like that makes you and your digestion nervous, and the country didn’t help. We were city boys, cruising out to the big, blue, lager-filled yonder and jumpy at the wide open space and sunlight.  All except Harvo, who stays in some weird commune down south, but despite his bourgeois efforts to keep us hip, things got tense.  The swearing quota was up, and we were underway.  A run into the unknown.

The empties were piling up and we had a scrapyard on our hands when Brugman started his fit.

“The time,” he screamed. “Fuck. Nine o’clock. Oh my god.”  We shifted to give him space to stretch out in hapless panic.  Five half-cut executives are no match for a crazy Stella drinker when he’s missed an appointment. We never found out what it was, this assignation in a remote office somewhere, but the mood was scary now.  You could tell, as the party began filing repeatedly into the john, sometimes two at a time.

A   T R I P   O N   S C R U M P Y

We shunted in Parkway – or it may have been Templemeads – before we knew it, and were all set to continue our run to the outer reaches of Wales and the crazed land of the Celt, until Watkins shrieked, “We’re here, we’re here.”

“Fuck,” said somebody, and we agreed, piling out into the sunlight. We were pretty high on bacon sandwiches by that time, myself more than most.  I’d won the spoof for the last lethal dose of grease and pork, and forced it down under the coal red gaze of my partners.  The going was getting pretty weird, but we certainly hadn’t turned pro.

“Scrumpy,” announced Greasa, “scrumpy,” and leapt, well, fell into a cab and we followed, a demonic chase across this unknown land.

We arrived at some dark bar up in the hills, glad to be out of the sun and watchful for lawmen.  However, no dice, so we turned out attention to lethal draughts of bitter apple balmy broth to stew out psyches.  We were bad news, and the bartender looked wary, as we checked out the joint, ordered food and came face-to-face with the pirate.

The pirate’s face hung in heavy red folds, raw and windblown, and his unseeing eyes, messed by scrumpy, refused to take us in.

“He’s got a dog,” hissed Greasa.

“I can’t see the dog, I can’t see the dog,” moaned Hawkeye.

“That’s because you’re drunk,” soothed Harvo.

The conversation, you could tell, was hotting up to be a corker, encapsulating the burning issues that beset us, the freewheeling people.  A man came in with “Death Before Employment” tattooed on his arm, and we cracked, howling like dogs, at the truth.

It was at that point that the killer bats appeared.

A   F L Y E R   T O   T H E   B R I D G E   A N D   T H E   G R E A T   D E C E P T I O N

With the arrival of the bats, food in our stomachs (a nasty experience with huge, rock-sized peas, savage green and mushy with it) and itchy feet, we set off for the canyon and the high bridge.

Some bridge.  I was glad we’d kept away from the Wild Turkey on the way down.  A few gulps of the golden brew and we all might have jumped.  As it was, there was some strange behaviour on the trek over there.  Watkins should be doing time for my attempted rape, while Brugman wilfully tortured my damaged psychological balance by withholding my left luggage locker key.  I was going mad and it was a tough assignment to avoid running, slobbering, to a call box when I saw the Samaritan’s phone number on the bridge posts as we walked out over the abyss.

A 2p toll is small payment for a quick suicide, and we stared over the edge, hoping to catch sight of a decaying student or possibly Masius account man in the mud, hundreds of feet below.  But no, only a dirty barge, and rows of traffic like mindless skunk ants, crawling along the riverside freeway.  We threw money and our respect over the side, reduced to spitting into the hot air, trying to placate the gods of the river and our indigestion, suffering the heat in a half mad trance.  We knew the big one was building up.

It was quiet.  Too quiet for us, and with a desire for some uptown, lager-induced excitement, we searched for a cab in the hot wilderness of the hills. After that, I became dazed.   I seem to remember Hawkeye and I staggering in the vanguard, whimpering quietly to ourselves, when we suddenly heard the triumphant cackle of our companions alongside us, taxi-bound for the festival. They were leaving us to fry in the living hell of Clifton, a steaming jungle of Queen Anne terraces and shopping arcades.

We stood, dumbstruck, in wonderment at the depths to which our colleagues had sunk.  Leering from the cab windows, poor, selfish fools, they cruised out of sight.

“Bastards,” said Hawkeye.

D I V I D E D   W E   F A L L

We trudged hot and heavy of foot through the maze of dusty streets in search of a leak and a telephone, throats like a dry gulch; we hadn’t had a drink for twenty minutes.  Things were bad, and the sky was still full of killer bats. I peed in a garage.  Hawkeye gabbled in a phone box and then, like some angel, a streamline b/w taxi (tel: 24001) swept us away from our torture.

We headed for the festival and a chance to rupture the ‘A’ team.

M I N D B L O W N   O R G Y   O N   T H E   W A T E R F R O N T

We waved our passes at the stewards and forced entry to the festival.  The so-called ‘A-Team’ were clustered in the doorway, having failed to push home the advantage and make it any further.  Watkins was hysterical by this stage, handling his Castlemaine like a conductor’s baton and mumbling about his ‘firm’ as entered (by himself) on his pass:  Fox and Gynaecologist – Pub.

It takes all sorts. I looked, in vain, for a valium stand for him.  Greasa was on some gravity trip, talking sense, and it looked as though Harvo was still with us, though it’s hard to tell these things.

We moved in en masse to the body of the show, hellbent on self destruction.  The crowd seemed composed of great red-faced dingbats with huge teeth, swaying on their feet, sickeningly unsteady.  We were all at screaming point, ready to kick and kick hard, besides forcing lashings of foreign lager down, as an antidote to the seething hordes of depraved humanity.

“Free Beck’s,” yelled Brugman.

“Beck’s is innocent.”  I could sense my humour was running dry.

At some point we hit the Mexican beer and the tacos and, after that, it didn’t matter any more.  We were over the great divide, oblivious to the crowd, swaying to the calypso band and tearful.  Maybe the chilli, maybe the Allsopps, who knows.

We even met the client, who appeared like a dull but cuddly wallaby out of the misty horizon.  “Fucking damn cunt, yeah,” said Hawkeye, amiably, and we traded conversation for a while.

But we had gone over the edge, out on a flyer, and survived.  Brains like glorious putty.  We stayed cool.  We hung loose.  We admitted nothing.  We were fucked, basically.

T H E   D E M I S E   O F   T H E   A – T E A M

And then we started coming down.  Hawkeye and I had made friends with the enemy, and clutching 24-packs for the journey, stumbled out with our man to the cab.  Somehow, in the daze, Hawkeye remembered key issues like career moves and ordered another cab. So the A-Team, by now confused and hapless, made the same train.  We all knew we had to flee the curse of Bristol, a lake lager torment way out west.

A rift occured on the early ride, as we retired to our corners to snort bacon sandwiches and muse over St Pauli’s.  We were coming out of it, or so we thought, but the most horrible phase was yet to come.

Suddenly, it hit.

Gresa and Brugman made it to the seats, fighting their way through the bats, to fade. Greasa slept fitfully, dreaming of blasting away at those in power, while Mad Mike crashed out after weeks of sleepless nights and Winstons.

Trouble brewed elsewhere.  “We’re professionals, we’re professionals,” shrieked Watkins, stumbling about on the beer soaked floor.  “The weird turn pro.  Oh my god,” he wailed.

Harvo, Hawkeye, the enemy and I played frisbee with Greasa’s record, while Waz continued suffering from some inner torment, crying, slobbering, walking into doors.  It was a heavy scene.  The barman shut up shop and the public stayed away.

Sometime ’round Chippenham, Watkins lost out on spoof again and mooned out of the window.  “Again, again,” screamed Hawkeye.  “You must show your testicles.”

It was awful.  Once sane men reduced to a rabble of deranged and giant turkeys.  From life in the fast lane to a mind blow out on the hard shoulder.

R E C O N C I L I A T I O N  A N D   S E P A R A T E   W A Y S

Slowly we slid into Paddington and hit the platform like plasticine men.  Friends again, but still out on the wire with alcohol.

Brugman headed for home and slept.

Watkins went to some weird party and remained mute.

Harvo lost himself, and wandered around the Edgeware Road trying to remember who he was.

After some more Swans, Greasa disappeared in South London, never to be seen again.

Hawkeye, scattering chairs and cans, caught a taxi, touched home base and then made that great telephone call to God.

And me? I went off to drink London Pride with some nervous types, to muse how we had set out, that fine summer’s day, to achieve the ultimate, and came home winners…

 

 

Chris office

In memory of Chris ‘Greasa’ Ward who, with Audrey Lewis, gave me my first proper job. With love and thanks. 

One day in August.

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So you get up at 4.20am, although you’ve been awake since 3.30.

The sky is black. There’s a clammy closeness to the morning (even though it’s really night). The cockerels haven’t started up. There are stars out. The lights over the alley-like streets that connect the centre of the village continue to blaze.

You make tea. You listen to the various phone alarms going off around the house. A few bottles of Moretti into the cooler box and a couple more of prosecco and it’s out into the square, with hats and sun cream.

Ivo and Monica hove into view in the noisy Ford estate. Clare and Joss pile in. You follow in the second car, along with Alice, Lottie and Michael. The Ford is belching fumes. Turning into Via Meassa, a sinuous, green gloom of a country road that everyone uses as a commuter cut-through, it becomes evident Ivo is not happy. He stops, backs up, does a U-turn and heads back home, barking through his open window, “Non funziona”,  instructing you to meet him at the far end of the road, when he has transferred all the gear from the Ford to his Citroen Berlingo. As he grinds away to change vehicles, a dirty candyfloss of diesel smoke hangs in the air.

You wait on the fast moving main road at the other end of Meassa. Michael stays awake and alert. Lottie and Alice sleep in the backseat. The Berlingo sweeps past and you set off in pursuit. It will be a journey down from the mountains of an hour-and-a-half. Your Volkswagen estate – the Beast of Wolfsburg  – guns along in the dark, its UK oriented headlights sweeping across the oncoming traffic. You hope the approaching drivers are not being too blinded. You keep your distance from Ivo. He doesn’t bother with indication. Roundabouts become gambles at a roulette wheel as you lurch after him.

After the tunnels and galleries of the autostrada and the inky black blocks of high mountains above, you sweep down to the flat lands. The road curls around in a elegant loop through hectare after hectare of prosecco vineyards. You speed through ribbon villages and towns on the Conegliano road. Dawn licks the dark sky. Villas, apartment blocks and nameless industrial buildings jostle with each other for roadside space amongst vines and farmland. Avenues of pine trees stretch away into the lightening gloom.  The magical soup of morning light is ladled fully across the horizon.  You drive into the canal zone between Pordenone and Caorle, an in-between waterworld of reeds and canals, fruit farms and the abandoned dreams of families that cobweb ruined, lonely buildings.

You touch upon the outskirts of Caorle itself, a comfortable resort whose skirts dip into the northern Adriatic. You’ve been here a few times, to rent your umbrella and sunbeds  for a day amongst hundreds of others. There parades a beguiling democracy: flab mixed with fit, tattoos flaunted alongside clear skins, lustrous hair tresses paired with bald, elderly heads.  Eastern European tourists tuck in with dynasties of Northern Italians, the latter devouring their Corriere newspapers.  Caorle is a place of late 20th Century Hotels – the Majestic, the Splendid, a hundred others – whose promising addresses, run with eccentric family pride, line streets that team with bicycles and beachwear shops. This is a resort that encourages all-comers to do their thing but fit in with everyone else while they’re doing it.

You dive off as you approach the back of the town’s outskirts and head west. A sharp turn leads to a shopping arcade that must have looked temporary thirty years ago. An air of abandoned theme park prevails. You stop and get out to join the others who have gathered, forgetting to put on the hand brake until called out by Michael, the dependable, your son’s most frequently visiting friend. With no harm done, you join the group with whom you will spend the day – there are twelve people in total – to gulp an espresso while Ivo speeds to a bakery for rolls and brioches.

Moments later, you follow Ivo once more, via a thinning road past bungalows that remind you of Shoreham or Bexhill, to a scrubland parking place and the dockside. It is not yet 7am. It is 24 degrees centigrade. There isn’t a cloud in the sky.

Your vessel is a rusting baked alaska of a boat, two crumbling levels squashed on top of each other. Your nostrils twitch to a faint but persistent reek, not unpleasant, the very essence of fermented sea life.  Introduced to your 80 year-old captain, he eyes you with measured scrutiny. Bobbing a snow white head, he asks, “Are you Scottish?” of your wife, when she dishes out Ivo’s homemade salami into the bread rolls. “No. Why?” she replies. To which, he opens his roll to reveal just two meagre slices. Clare pops another couple in for him. He smiles and pads off back up to his wheelhouse.

IMG_0254  IMG_0215

As you set off, through millpond water in the canal mouth before the sea, there is a pause amongst the group and then preparation starts in earnest.  Comparative, competitive fishing chat in dialect grows from a murmur among the Cirvoiese, as they unleash rods, lines, hooks and carry cases.  You step around toolboxes,  overflowing with weights, grotesque lures and nameless grommets.   Bait is fetched from the forward deck, where polystyrene boxes of sardines and squid defrost into black soup.  Tiny sardines have their tails tied in fishnet loops while squid are deftly cut into strips. The boat’s engines open up and your occasional glances over the creamed-surf sternwave are met with a diminishing view of Caorle.  The army of umbrellas and sunbeds defend the empty beaches. Invasion will come later.

IMG_0224      Ivo sets line

Ivo expends extraordinary, ever-giving energy as he lines and hooks rods for all six of your party.   As the boat steams 12 nautical miles straight out to sea on the light swell, he places the rods on the rests around the deck with care and speed.  With sixteen or eighteen rods pointing off the boat, your craft bristles like a gunship.  You marvel at the staccato bursts of machine gun fire of Ivo’s speech patterns as he harangs you with indefatigable positivity.  It is going to be, he convinces you, a good day.

At a nod from the captain to his single crew member, you lurch to a stop and hear the clank as the anchor chain plays out.  There is a moment’s drift.  The engine surges and goes silent.  The rope attached to the chain checks you against the current.  It is only forty feet to the bottom.  In one direction, lost in the haze, is the shuffle and clamour of Venice. On the opposite horizon, a smudge indicates the mystery of Trieste.

You are gifted a spot amidships on the shady side of the boat and told to get on with it.  Juggling your allotted rod and a beer thrust into your hand, you cast for a few minutes. A brief cry of triumph goes up.  In the stern, Renato, a neatly moustached man in a multi-pocketed fishing waistcoat, hauls in a mackerel of perhaps a pound-and-a-half. He continues to do this about every five minutes for the rest of the day with metronomic regularity. He appears to have exchanged a fishing hook for a magnet.

Not much is happening around your line.  The sardine tail in its coil stays intact and unvisited.  Small shards of collapsing sardine from a string bag dangling off the bow swirl past in the current to entice passing shoals to join your party.  After Renato’s first catch, the Cirvoiese start landing fish after fish as if in a fairground.  The cooler boxes around your feet thud percussively with reverberating mackerel and pollock as the numbers pile up.  Paolo, the geometra attending two rods between you and Renato, maintains the smug air of an Italian Alan Bennett as he spools his many successes onto the deck at your feet.

There is a sharp cough from behind. It is the octogenarian captain.  Without asking, he takes your rod from you, reels in and looks at the bait with disgust.  Throwing it contemptuously into the water, he threads a postage stamp of squid.  Casting, he looks into the water for about 15 seconds then hands the rod back without ceremony.  There is a fish on the line. With a mixture of shame and satisfaction, you hoik a decent sized mackerel out of the sea. By the time you turn to thank the man, he has already disappeared back into his wheelhouse.  Conflicted, you feel infantilised and full of gratitude.  But while he may  have helped you catch the fish, you have caught the bug.

IMG_0241  hangers on

For about two hours, with the occasional break for a redistribution of beers, rolls or a chat, you fish.  Your mind drifts to the glorious neutrality of the here and now. Although the current is evident, the sea calms to near glass. Two or three boats sneak up and anchor in your patch, feeding off both your captain’s instinctive knowledge of where to find fish and also the sack of fragmenting bait, spreading around you. A couple on a smart, white sports cruiser start fishing 100 yards away, both wearing the smallest triangles of cloth imaginable. She has three and he just one.  A wavering breeze dispels the thickening heat but gives every indication of commitment issues.

Lunch is announced shortly before midday. The taciturn crew member dishes out penne putanesca in small plastic bowls.  Tomato-rich, anchovy-seasoned and olive-festooned, there is a satisfying, salty ‘gnyaah’ to the food (as Fergus Henderson might say), helped with liberal gratings from the parmesan block. Tumblers of icy prosecco are thrown back.  You fall on deep fried, crispy squid, prawns and fish as a follow-on, before Paolo hands you a slice of raspberry jam torte. It is the rewardingly dense handiwork of his wife (who has stayed at home).  Concluding, the crew member encourages you to correct your espresso with viscous sambuca.

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The girls in your party retire to the upper deck and sunbathe.  The boys continue fishing beside the Italians. An encroaching stillness becalms your early afternoon. After your morning’s catch – a desultory three or four small prizes – activity in your patch of water ceases. The ground bait sack is empty.  Renato continues, somehow, to pluck mackerel from the sea, but others’ luck dwindles. Once or twice, a flurry of interest is raised when small fry break the surface,  scattered meteor showers of tiny fish escaping something bigger, but whatever is in pursuit gives your hook a wide berth.

Heavy with heat and lunch, torpor trips your concentration. You sit, your back to the engine housing, your legs outstretched on the wooden bench. Sleep is instant. You probably snore but then so does Joss beside you and your neighbours cradling their heads on their arms at the table.  Unconscious for a few, stupefying minutes, you wake to a scene drained of colour.  Stumbling on the metal ladder to the upper deck while your eyes adjust, you join Clare and Monica who are both sunning and chatting, keeping a benign watch over you all.

Returning to your post, you try a little casting, but your heart isn’t in it and neither, apparently, are the fishes’. Before long, the captain signals time to draw stumps and you steam away from your pitch, looking back at the little boats on its boundary, still fielding with hopes of a catch heading their way.  The Cirvoiese begin the serious business of beheading, filleting, cleaning and (although not for the mackerel) scaling the fish. Ivo deals with over sixty, our combined haul,  before throwing the bits off the stern.  From nowhere, a shower of predatory, rasping gulls screech down to fight over every morsel. The beady-eyed winners take all, swooping away from their shrieking competitors.

In the last few minutes of your return to shore, a languid state of grace descends upon the dozen of you.  You sit with the Italians in companionable silence, each staring at your own, particular horizon.  The spell is broken as you tie up with a flurry of deck clearance and the carting of the gear to the cars. You are forced to step back from the ovens they have become as you open the doors. You say a sincere farewell to the captain and, with air conditioning up to the max, you follow the others to a bar in a town just off a roundabout, close to the motorway home.  Goldfish bowls of iced beer are served to you all by a smiling Chinese bar owner.  You fight to pay for the drinks but fail spectacularly, so slide in a second round, shortly after.

As you drive on home, every passenger sleeps.  Tomorrow, you will cook the fish fillets  over the barbecue in silver paper, with lemon, rosemary, white wine and garlic before driving back down to Venice airport with Michael and Lottie.  If you allow it, the sense of an ending will flood in to the evening, with the prospect of the drive back to England a day or two away. You have been here a month.  Beyond the Dolomites, the Val D’Aosta, the Mont Blanc tunnel and Dijon lie your new job, Alice’s new university place and the wettest October on record.

The party mood brushes those thoughts away, banishing them completely.  Instead, you totter in to your little courtyard, your sunburned skin too tight for your face. Dusk is an hour or two ahead.  At the table under the vine and the heavy black bunches of Clinton grapes, scented from the sun to an atmosphere of intoxifying strawberry bubblegum, you sit with a glass of prosecco that you bottled at Easter and contemplate the day you have had.

You’ve been fishing.  You are home. 

Awdry family    Family

A head start.

LONDON-TUBE-RUSH

Across the sea of arms and heads

A gold helmet breaks the horizon,

Grotesque, beautiful.

Reflected in the dome are angled eels of hands

Around the wearer.

A diver, perhaps,

Swimming the straits of a carriage

Pulsing with commuter anemones.

The incongruity dreamlike.

Jacques Cousteau static in a shoal

Of morning worker fish.

Or an astronaut, transfixed by a

First step onto a populous planet.

The contours catch the lights of

Marble Arch.  The head turns.

A bespectacled cyclist of

Some years and creased brow.

Dive.  Dive.  Dive.

We’re off to Bond Street.

Dakota

3715E42E-52BD-4FE6-827A-143276A3F76D  kelly jones

A straightforward, stadium-pleasing song by The Stereophonics is a perfect analogy for my life at Big Fish.  It’s a classic driving tune.

At first, as the song gets going, there’s a straightforward, deceptively stripped back momentum.  It is pure. Liberating, even.  In my previous employment, corporate, cats-cradle complexity had bled the life out of me.  This new sense of motoring, in a wood floored kitchen of a studio in Lots Road, was an absolute joy. The people were exceptional. We pulsed forward.  Life seemed stripped back to the simple.  There was discipline to the way that people worked, with a sense of suppressed excitement that anything – anything – could happen. I wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised when, every now and then, the whole thing opened up with a full throttle roar. This was a job with a throb.

The Stereophonics power on through Dakota with unstoppable momentum.  One of the song’s great hooks is that its four progression chords have absolutely no idea of how to change direction, nor any intention whatsoever of actually changing. The metronomic synth under the verse is unstoppable. The time signature, if not exactly blitzkreig, is brisk. So much so that, when it’s all been going on for about six minutes or, in my case, four-and-a-half years, one is aware that the juggernaut has been thundering on for quite a long time and perhaps, now, it’s time for something else to happen.

In the closing, musical coda, when Kelly Jones swaggers into the chorus, blundering about at half speed, bellowing randomly as if gargling rivets, it becomes clear the conclusion is going to be a bit of a mess. The progression stops. The song grinds to a halt.  All sense of forward direction evaporates. The tune, effectively, hits the buffers.

Perhaps my departure from Big Fish wasn’t entirely like that, but there are some close parallels. Nobody was hurt.  Nothing really seismic happened.  Except that my part was played out.  It was the moment to throw my drumsticks into the crowd and wander off.

I should just conclude with two reassurances: a) I love the song Dakota (a zillion nights of very loud listening) and b), Big Fish was an incredibly enjoyable working experience on so many levels. It is an exceptional company.  In the end, I guess it was just a timed visit.

ISBN isn’t it.

cover

I’ve always wanted to write a book.  Or perhaps, more truthfully, I’ve always wanted to say I’ve written a book.

Now I can.

It’s been fascinating.  I was commissioned to write about Wembley Park, the 85 acres around Wembley Stadium, by a small design consultancy called Sutton Young.  Their client, Quintain, has been responsible for the development of the place over nearly twenty years.

The idea was to capture something of the place, its transformation and glue it all together in a narrative. Twenty thousand words, three to four months in the capturing and writing and we’d all be done by January.  Or at least, that was the theory.

Wembley as a place, at the end of 2018, was a marriage of a globally recognised icon and seismic new construction.  I jumped at the chance. Approaching the subject through people who knew the inside stories, it was to be a fabulous, diverting education.  I shared a few, initial thoughts with Sutton Young who, in turn, talked it through with those at the top of Quintain.  The idea that ‘flew’ was a series of interviews where the last question would ask the interviewee to name the person who, to them, personified the true spirit of Wembley.  There were no constraints.  The choice could be someone living or dead, famous or not, known to them or else a complete stranger.

‘Pass It On’ was born.

On my first trip into Wembley after I’d been given the green light, I was on an 83 bus one early morning. ‘Do not spit Paan’ shouted little green signs hanging from the lamp posts on Alperton Way.  An £80 fine was threatened. We trundled past the magnificent, if slightly incongruous, Shri Vallabh Nihi Mandir.  A Hindu temple, its elaboration makes St Pancras look like Lego, with all its intricate details fashioned in limestone from Jaisalmer, a city in remote (ish) west Rajasthan where Clare and I rode camels during our honeymoon.   In Wembley Park, it was the night after an Anthony Joshua fight and the roads were festooned with huge posters and digital screens anticipating – correctly, as it had turned out – his win.

When Quintain bought the site, with its endless, desolate car parks and worse-for-wear industrial buildings, Wembley Park had one full time resident.  He was the Irish night watchman.  Sadly departed, he might have raised an eyebrow at the 7,000 people who now live in the area full time in addition to the 90,000 who flow into the place on the 40 ‘event days’ each year.  The scale and speed of building has been eye-watering.

I met fascinating people.  They granted me loads of time and spoke freely.  The upshot is a volume of slightly more than 20,000 words with accompanying photographs, somewhere between coffee table book and extended inflight magazine. Each interview was a fascinating, often funny and ceaselessly rewarding education.

Besides a fund of brilliant stories, I do now have an ISBN number to my name. I never thought I would.

Lots of people helped make it happen beyond the interviewees, particularly Mike Sutton, Charlie Byrt, James Kinsey and Michael Ibbison of Sutton Young and both James Saunders and Julian Tollast of Quintain.  Industrial quantities of thank-yous are due in their direction. And writing everything down, perhaps befitting to the pitch at the epicentre of Wembley, I had an absolute ball.

ISBN Pass It On intro12 Sergeant14 Harris17 Cotton

The Link din.

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Before I start, can I just say that all Linked Inners, especially those to whom I am connected, are wonderful people.  I can?  Oh good.

Don’t know about you but I’m approaching Peak Linked. Every connection I ever made, those thousands of wondrous filaments, have meshed to an impenetrable fence. Linked In is now, to me, a clunking, pendulous chain that weighs heavily.

It’s not you.  It’s me – and a testament to too much casual linking. Ah, youthful impetuosity. I used to click and click. What was I thinking?

I’ve been ‘reached out’ to by myriad lovely people to the point that I’m no longer touched but just thoroughly, exhaustively fingered. The act has lost its pleasure. All that reaching and grasping has left me a mass of grubby thumb prints. I feel rubbed raw. So many people have offered to ‘share synergies’ with me, it’s a wonder I haven’t caught something. They always promise ‘mutual advantage’, these charming requests, but increasingly the invitations have the resistible allure of car keys tangled in the pot of a bunch of swingers from Frimley.

There are the droves of gorgeous coders, SEO magicians and email engineers from all parts Bangalore. They are, I’m sure, unfailingly brilliant. Quite rightly, they tell me that over and over again. Tssk.  I should have known.  The same goes for the massed ranks of intermediaries in the head hunting game. Enchanting people, I have no doubt, every last man, woman and Natasha, of whom there seem to be an inordinate number.

The language is worn thin with repetition.  The sparks are depressingly few and far between, in the grey slurry of selling messages and professional dating demands.

As for the simpering crowd of ‘honoured to’s’, ‘proud that’s’ and ‘humbled by’s’ who, for very human reasons to do with rampaging ego, lack of self knowledge and an eye on next year’s Cannes shortlists, feel compelled to share their latest creative washing on the Linked-In line: just stop it. Enough already. Please channel your inner Jennifer Aniston and demand of your sanity, IS IT WORTH IT? Exactly. Spend some more time in front of the mirror instead.

Most recently, it appears that the most effective ‘How-to-flog-stuff-on-Linked-In’ chain letter ever has reached truckloads of US digital businesses, because they now all conclude their invitations with the sentence, “Let’s hop on a call next week and discuss opportunities.” More and more, I keep both feet on the ground, some way from the telephone.

Oh god, I’m such a grinch.  Hypocritical too, because I’ve dabbled in a bit of hardcore sharing.  This little article here; that pack design we loved from the studio there; something funny or infectiously clever that I wanted to pass on, that might – just – reflect well on me.

Nevertheless, in the waterfalls of solipsistic self-reverence, it’s all one can do not to drown. It never ceases, this overload of business blancmange at best, a downpour of drivel at worst. It’s like being wrapped in candy floss and read the phone directory at the same time. Sweet but boring.

And yet. And yet…  There are, still, wonderful exceptions.  The piece about a new Spotify poster campaign this morning.  The agency is called Who Wot Why.  The work is excellent, with that current, understated, on-brand twang in the writing that the brand has made all its own.

UB40 Spice GirlsLondon Conferences Garbage Recycling

Hmmm.  Rant over and a sense of relief.  Perhaps I’ll take the fingers out of ears and my palms from over my eyes.

I wonder what’s out there? Perhaps one more teeny weeny look. Just one last lunge at the Links today.  Just one…

 

 

The Touching Trees

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For the last four-and-a-half years, I have worked in a design studio by the Thames in Chelsea.  To reach it, with increasing frequency, I’ve walked through Brompton Cemetery on my way between Big Fish and Earl’s Court tube.

It’s been a civilizing, contemplative commute.  Lottery money has poured in to the cemetery and a team of gardeners keeps the place neat and spruce.  Still a working burial ground, there are occasional interments to add to the 200,000 people laid to rest in this ‘great garden of remembrance’. On a recent hot July morning, I stepped around two magnificent black horses being cooled with water buckets. Alongside was the ornate hearse ready for the later funeral.

Brompton is a far cry from the neglected and notorious spot it used to be, a menacing place I visited in the 1980s. On a grey winter’s day, my overwhelming impression then was that I had found the inspiration for CS Lewis’ Charn, the dying world described at the beginning of The Magician’s Nephew.  Charn is a grimly desolate place. The two children, who feature as the protagonists, find themselves in a never-ending corridor of seemingly dead and petrified people sitting either side on chairs, unmoving and unseeing.  At the very head of these long lines, they disturb a proud and cruel looking woman by sounding a bell.  The wicked witch, as we come to know her, rises imperiously, a vision of awakened and evil intent (and, thanks to Pauline Baynes’ illustrations, in a setting that’s a doppelganger for the catacombs of Brompton Cemetery).  The witch later sweeps into 18th Century London and creates mayhem before being transported to a new world at its birth. That is Narnia, where the Witch lurks as a super baddy to challenge all things good and Aslan-ish.

One can disappear into many rear-view reveries, walking through Brompton.

There are some very notable people there.  Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave is never without fresh flowers and admirers. William Howard Russell, the greatest, as well as the first ever, war correspondent is buried off the beaten track.  John Wisden, of cricket and Almanack fame, lies to one side of a quiet path.  Near the back southern wall, Kit Lambert’s marble plaque is attached to that of his ancestors, a calm tableau not entirely in keeping with the complicated, restless man who brought The Who together.  Bob Carlos Clarke, who took fantastically erotic photographs that enthralled the advertising and art worlds, is under a simple, bold stone in the south west corner. It marks his departure, tragically early at 55, when he jumped in front of a train.

Emmeline Pankhurst  William Russell war corres John Wisden Kit Lambert Bob Carlos Clarke

Despite the odd and obvious stand-out gravestones like these, the overwhelming sense one has walking through the cemetery, from one end to the other, is how most of the stones are comfortably dull.  Of the 200,000 or so lives commemorated, most have made do with a name, some dates and the simplest of expressions. There are plenty of ostentatious, flowery outpourings too, but the majority are similarly forgettable.   While every person there will have had passions, achievements and histories in life, the details or individuality are simply lost in the telling, or lack of telling. (I use the observation as a metaphor for brands seeking attention from a disinterested audience strolling by. Londoners, according to a Guardian article from the summer of 2018, are exposed to 13,500 commercial messages a day.  Their capacity to remember any is, on average, only one.  One.)

The joy of Brompton, though, has been the endearing clutch of quirky individuals and rewarding encounters with animals.  There are no end of grey squirrels. The place is home to an army of crows, who hop about in appropriately black plumage, a seething convention of noisy undertakers. With them come a small number of eccentric bird feeders, who upend whole loaves of Hovis from cavernous shopping bags.  Usually women of a certain, senior vintage, they scowl at the runners and dog walkers who pound the pathways. This summer, a fox lair right at the centre became something of a focus as one adult raised two cubs with extraordinary care. I learned this from both watching them and also from a lady in a motorised wheelchair. She put down frankfurters for the foxes most evenings, cooingly happy with her pampered charges.  Other characters waited patiently until the coast was clear and then took up stations, simple watching or photographing the animals’ antics from just a few feet away.

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My favourite spot of all is just under the two pine trees (the photo at the top).  I chose to walk under them more often than not.  They became, to me,  the Touching Trees, a duo that appear, in fanciful imagination, to be holding hands. Standing underneath them awakened all sorts of positive memories.  The pine needles made me think of the big ‘swing tree’ at my childhood home of Little Downham, where after innocent hours of swinging or being swung on a wooden seat suspended from a great bough, we later – and more mischievously  – packed the needles into rolled up rhododendron leaves and smoked them furiously.  From the age of 7 to 13, I was away at St Neot’s, a curious and enchanting prep school that was stuck, a fossil of perfectly preserved 19th Century tradition marooned in the middle of Bagshot sands, near Wokingham. The best growing plants on the sands are bracken and pine trees, and the school was bulwarked by 70 acres of both. Pine resin, pine bark and pine needles are all immediate calling cards that take me straight back to the years of running madly, but very happily, through ‘The Rough’ as the woods were called.

More indulgently still, there was something about the Touching Trees that struck me as parental. The duo appeared tightly bonded, whatever the season, holding hands in happy communion.  The sense of protection afforded by their quiet, swishing response to whatever complications were seething through my mind never failed to make the moment calmer.

Under the Touching Trees is candidate for my favourite place, although there are many. I shall miss walking through Brompton more than I can say.

Alexa, write my copy.

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[The following was published recently by D&AD.  The cartoon appeared in Punch in 1981.]
 

I once wrote a 3,200-word ad in a weekend.  I would have killed for a copywriting bot at the time.  A giant silvery worm that hoovered up the endless briefing documents and pooed out whole sentences would have been a godsend. Instead, my long defence of British Satellite Broadcasting ran in Monday’s FT.  On Tuesday, Rupert Murdoch bought the company out and it ceased to exist. The ad wasn’t just fish wrap.  It was a shroud.

Nevertheless, riffing about Artificial Intelligence Writing Tools to a creative audience is close to shooting fish in a barrel. It’s easy to take aim. I think I know which side you’re on. Do any of us welcome these gizmos at all? No one wants to be replaced by a machine, ever. Yet, in this gig economy, the mechanical genii are very much out, about and fucking difficult to stuff back in the lamp.  (Do AI tools swear, I wonder?)

Search the subject and Google will tell you that they’re all about content writing, SEO dominance and how to fashion data as text.  I get that. AI gear can churn out functional, factual information that bounces about the top of search lists. Think 21st Century equivalent of Dymo tape that sticks to the subject and labels it with clarity, shrieking ‘look at me’ louder than most, humanly applied intelligence can do.

Truthfully, even Google Search itself is a better, faster friend to the copywriter than the late, lamented Daily Telegraph Information Line. That chatty telephone service was used to fact-check every ad I wrote in my first two agencies. But equally truthfully, closer inspection of the information written by AI bots – or the terms and conditions that have been vomited out of their various app’s sequencing gubbins – reveal it to be phenomenally, catastrophically boring.

For instance, you could throw the whole AI suite of digital tools at an ironmonger’s shop. By return, you could expect crystal clear descriptions of all the nails, tacks and screws. Everything will be written into its place according to length, diameter and more.  Never, ever, in a trillion years, would any one of them come up with “Fork Handles” and keep their readers or viewers amused, absorbed and repeating the phrase over and over for years as Ronnie Barker’s famous sketch did. That requires human genius.

The obvious point to make is the Bill Bernbach one. Persuasion is an art, not a science. However many microchips conspire to produce something emotional and artistic, the results are tellingly cold. The algorithms behind writing tools are the product of committee thinking. Google Translate has democratised understanding, but that committee-effect is rubbing out local character, nuance and idiosyncrasy.  No machine  – yet – can ever capture the glorious, madcap, inconsequential and illogical lunacy of human beings as they really communicate.

Pure logic as a selling tool –  Ronseal and precious few others excepted – falls on stony ground in the limbic brain.Twenty years after Flat Eric, the curiously yellow puppet employed by Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth to advertise stay-pressed Levi’s, that ad strikes as being as far from a logical sell as you could conceive.  Further back still, Chris O’Shea’s “My shout, he whispered,” for reassuringly expensive Stella and Frank Budgen’s incomparable “Which of these three kids is wearing Fisher Price anti-slip roller skates?” (with only one child visible) would never, for simple mathematical reasons, have been spawned by Artificial Intelligence.

If we default to AI tools wholesale fashion, we’ll make the business of communication even less attractive to the next generation (and the communication itself even more ignorable). Yes, there are vital roles for AI copy that, like Desert Orchid, can overcome all the handicaps and finish first when the snapshot is taken. But they are only part of the picture.

If there’s one handy, look closely at the copywriter nearest to you. Imagine them going all Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner suddenly.  “I’ve seen body copy on fire off the creative director’s desk,” they might say. “I’ve watched pronouns glittering in the dark near paragraph ends. All that punctuation will be lost like tears in the rain. Time to delete,” before expiring as small batteries start firing out of their nose, ink cartridges leaking visibly under their skin.

Honestly, I don’t think we’re in any real danger yet. AI is really about helping, not replacing us.

A closing shot should go to one Keaton Patti. On Twitter, he declared he’d forced a bot to watch over 1,000 hours of commercials for Olive Garden (a casual Italian dining chain in the US).  He then asked it to write a script of its own. If you haven’t read it, you should. It is so brilliantly funny, it could never have been written by anything other than a human being.

Whatever the debates, there’s one conclusion of which we scribes can be absolutely certain. AI Writing Tools would never dream of winning a D&AD pencil, even if we all do.

Bahamarama.

Granny NCL

“I’ve flown this route many times,” barked the account director next to me, puffing on his Silk Cut.  “There’s only one way to travel.” The British Airways stewardess smiled down at him and handed over a vodka and tonic. From that point on, she served up a winning stream of miniatures with the constancy of Roger Federer.

The account director was Jerry Judge. His mischievous eyes constantly swept the horizon for fun.  Jerry was the reason I had landed at BBH in the first place.  Meeting him at a party in rural Bucks, he encouraged me to show our portfolio to Graham Watson who, in turn, shunted it towards John Hegarty. A charismatic performer nonpareil, Jerry started young, starring opposite Richard Attenborough in the 1959 film Jet Storm, aged eight.  Something of the schoolboy performer stayed with him in perpetuity.

Sitting in the back of the plane alongside us were Paul Edwards, a precise, bow-tied planner, Stephen Gash, account manager, and Martin.  We were to meet a new client for a briefing and, shortly afterwards, come up with advertising to boost sales in Europe. It was spring, 1988.

The client was Norwegian Caribbean Lines.  After meeting in their offices on the Miami seafront, we were to ‘experience’ a weekend cruise to Nassau.  Come the Friday morning, body clocks off kilter, we slid out of the elevator at the appointed hour. The office decor was all dull cream, leather and cigar-smoke, so beloved by corporate America. Our haggard looks spoke of a blizzard of inflight drinks and little sleep. Outside, under grey morning skies, an occasional cruise ship swept out of the maritime car park.  Meeting the senior marketing manager, a man called John, clad in serious suit and tie, we attempted concentration.  The morning lurched from one impenetrable transparency projection to another, until John announced that we would go out to lunch.

In seconds, he changed personality to become a shrieking party banshee, energetically piloting us down to taxis and on to the legendary Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant. He giggled us into Dubonnet cocktails as we were wrapped in paper bibs.  The stone crab was in a class of its own, elevated higher still by little pots of melted butter. Outside the sun broke through. John made happy little claps when anything pleased him. He clapped a lot.

From the restaurant, we boarded our home for the next 48 hours, the SS Sunward II. Already ‘of a certain age’, about 350 passengers and nearly the same number of crew members swarmed its decks.  After the offices, the bright coloured carpets and furnishings were an assault, a Berni Inn backed into a particularly fluorescent biryani.

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We nosed out of the Miami seaway towards the open ocean and a very light swell. Paul looked anxious.  It was the first time I had ever seen him without a bow tie.  Sporting a towelling polo shirt (that may well have been ironed), he turned green. The waves were perhaps a foot high and spaced a cricket pitch apart but it became clear that he’d left his sealegs at home.  Deftly grabbing a small glass ashtray, he was neatly, precisely and accurately sick, a triumph of distressed control. We watched, fascinated.

John herded the rest of us to the bar for our induction.  A Hieronymous Bosch meets pantomime affair, it was led with terrifying cheerfulness by the Ents Officer. A ringer for Richard Stilgoe, he grinned horribly through his beard until the finale, when he seized an accordion, played a medley of tunes at benzedrine speed and bobbed about as if having a fit.  It was awful.  Earlier, he had commanded us that, wherever we were, whatever we were doing and whenever we heard him yell, “Bahamarama” over the ships tannoy, we were to bellow back the same, as loud as we could.   Duly, Jerry cleared his throat and murmured, “Bahamarama” with impeccable BBC diction and started to look for an escape route.  John, the client, clapped and hooted with delight. The Ents Officer gibbered to a close.

NCL’s weekend trips were known by the crew as ‘divorce cruises’.  Snowbirds from the wintery midwest would flock down as soon as legal proceedings were done, all set to blow their alimony in the ship’s bars and on the gaming tables. There were also flights of the newly retired, set free and homing in on Florida sunshine. Among the Hawaiian shirts and cocktail dresses, a lot of cleavage was on display from both sexes.  ‘Turtleneck’ took on a whole new meaning.

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Martin Galton, Stephen Gash, Jerry Judge, Will Awdry,  John (from NCL), the Captain.

The next morning we were roused by a ‘Bahaharama’ or two and found ourselves docked in Nassau. The divorcees and retirees were already off on manoeuvres,  invading the straw market and stockpiling Tee shirts, belts and hats of every description.  Martin and I wandered down the street to Government House, little realising we’d be back there two years later with some of Sir Lynden Pindling’s cabinet. That afternoon, we steamed to an atoll NCL had leased off the Bahamian government.  Approaching its immaculate white sand, attractively spaced coconut palms and thatched beach cabins, we admired its beauty, only to watch it transform in moments to an Omaha Beach of cruise passengers. They flooded the place like geese, shouting ‘Bahamarama’ every now and then and pecking at any last square inch that might still be uninhabited.  We joined the throng at a beach bar for a contemplative rum punch while Jerry reeled off anecdote after anecdote.  Gently, John replaced his clapping with surreptitious hiccoughs.

IMG_8143  Martin NCL  NCL wheelchairs

That evening, we were the honoured guests on the Captain’s table. Besides us, there were two fabulous Nashville divorcees and a dozen senior crew members. All the men were Norwegian or Danish, in smart white uniforms and heavy with melancholy. You could hardly blame them.  They had to sit with passengers every working night of their lives, miles from the soothing, cosy gloom of Oslo or Copenhagen, and suffer enforced cheerfulness. It must have been ghastly.  The First Officer, sitting next to me, appeared on the verge of tears until I asked about deaths on board. Instantly, his face lit up, wreathed in smiles, as he described the eight berth morgue – cleverly refrigerated – in the hold. He made it sound like heaven, which I suppose, in a way, it was. He told me about a couple who, together with their 68 year old daughter, had sailed for a ten day cruise to Cancun. The elderly husband expired in his cabin on the first day. The captain arranged  to meet the grieving widow and daughter, explaining they would be disembarked with the body at Nassau the next morning and repatriated to the mainland by plane.

The widow was emphatic. “No,” she said. “We’ve been saving for this for years.”

For the rest of the cruise, mother and daughter ate, drank, played deck games by day and took to the dancefloor by night as if there was no tomorrow.  Which, for the husband lying downstairs in the fridge, there obviously wasn’t.

Around the Captain’s table, my BBH colleagues were similarly wading through treacle, with the exception of Jerry who had somehow seated himself between the attractive ship’s purser, a provocative, Rula Lenska figure and an equally elegant woman, who ran the ship’s domestic staff.  He grinned wolfishly as we left the table.

All of us shot up to the top deck and danced madly with the throng to shake off the crew’s gloom.  The Nashville pair joined us, both very good company and extremely funny. I have a residual memory of Martin stepping out with each of them in turn.  He held his eager – and rather well endowed – dance partners at a decorous arms’ length, with the same rigidity one might handle a wheelbarrow.  At about 2am, knowing the next morning heralded a debrief meeting upon landing, I  headed for bed.  On the way down, I bumped into Jerry, ambling along a carpeted passageway. He was looking at the cabin numbers on the doors, with a studied, distracted air, checking them against the two scribbles on his napkin.

“Ah-ha.  Awdry.  Yes,” he ventured.  “Looking for, er, anyway…   Bahamarama”.

The next morning, feeling like death, we peeled ourselves off our bunks, bolted some breakfast and disembarked.   At our three hour meeting, Jerry, in very dark sunglasses, talked nineteen to the dozen, while we looked on in awe.  I don’t remember a word he said. None of us did. John, the client, as similarly compromised as we five, nodded wearily during the speech, and hiccoughed only slightly. We all left as very good friends.

The advertising we did was therefore something of a ‘what we did on our holidays’ exercise with a liberty or two about the age range. Ken Griffiths took the shots in Westway studios.  Our octogenarian dolphin lady, swinging about in a harness while grabbing a prosthetic fish, drank half a bottle of gin during the session.  For some reason, the French absolutely loved the ads.  They headed off to NCL cruises in shoals, while their advertising publications  showered us with all sorts of awards, none of which we understood.  The legendary art director Mark Reddy liked our snorkel piece in Direction magazine.

All in all, another’s day’s work in paradise. Or, as I might say if I was feeling a little more shouty, ‘Bahamarama’…

Norwegian