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.

IMG_8141    Sunward_II_02_CC   IMG_8140

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

Jeans and scribbles.

LEVI 3

Self aggrandisement has reached epidemic levels on LinkedIn.  “Honoured/proud to have been part of…” every other comment begins before, implicitly and boldly, stating how fabulous the writer is. Some project or other has come to fruition. Except the comment is not really about the project and far more about them. They did it. Without whom, it, well, you know, disaster.  The whole thing would have crashed and burned.  Whatever it was.

“Look at me, look at me!” they might just as well say. Or, more to point in these cash-strapped days of freelance over-supply and budget downsizing, “For fuck’s sake, buy this thing or give me a job.”  Very understandable, but the sheer volume of self-loving commentary has rendered the phrasing a rusted cliché.  It’s up there with “reaching out” in my book.

But if you can’t beat them, echo them, I suppose. A long time ago, far away in Bartle Bogle Hegarty-land, it happened to me. Except that instead of saying, “Honoured”, I should really just say, “Phenomenally lucky to have been anywhere near the building when…” and leave it there.

Not to be unduly unassuming but, for reasons I will never fathom, back in the late 1980s, I caught an extraordinary wave.  I haven’t been, nor ever will be, a surfer. A Marigold washing-up glove would be more graceful on a board. Nevertheless, for a few moments,  in a work sense,  I stood up without thinking and didn’t fall over. I joined a shoal of other surfers in the BBH creative department.  We weaved in and out of each other on our wave with insouciant confidence.

Everything worked, including us, for long hours at odd times of day, although we did also stand outside Soho pubs at lunchtime for hours on end.

One day, Martin arrived in the office with a story he’d written.  In his inimitable handwriting, it told of a man who gathered his friends together in a funeral cortege.  They walked solemnly through the New Orleans streets to a soulful march, before gathering around a grave.  At that point, the man leaned forward and buried his battered old jeans, a shredded, threadbare pair of 501s, which he dropped into the earth. End of jeans and end of narrative.

Generously, he allowed me to mess about with it. We tinkered with some of the details, but the idea was all his.  We knew that a Levi’s 501 script was “having trouble”** in the system and there was a quiet flurry of alternative scripts flooding into John Hegarty’s office.

Our (or Martin’s) funeral procession script was picked, presented and selected.  We flew to New Orleans and inherited the crew that had just finished filming Oliver Stone’s JFK, with Kevin Costner.  All the crew seemed to be called Danah (pronounced Day-nah with ‘Y’all’ languor).  They told eye-watering stories of what Costner had supposedly got up to with varied, and evidently willing, young women of that city during the film shoot.

Our director was Michael Haussman, a protégé of the wonderful Helen Langridge. A cool American, he wore a very small pork pie hat and surrounded himself with a coterie of similarly cool hat wearers in white vests.  In the hot and sticky city, long before the terrible floods of Hurricane Katrina, we wandered into the French Quarter for four full days, filming the funeral procession and street marching band. In a separate sortie, we investigated the delta, south of the city  for locations but were put off by the hostility in the various bars and settlements we tried.  Instead, we drove the 24 mile long bridge across Lake Ponchartrain to the north and filmed our hero burying his jeans in horse-racing country.  Along the way, I remember struggling to get a conversation going with our chicken wrangler, a monosyllabic man who specialised in fowl on film.  We also had a genuine New Orleans street band, led by 14 year-old prodigy, Trombone Shorty. Now in his thirties, he’s a modest but brilliant star.  Having played with Bo Diddley when he was four, he grew up to record with the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and countless other acts, as well as leading two command performances for the Obamas in the White House.

There was also a more complicated legacy to Procession.  Heart Attack and Vine, sung with commendable lunacy by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, is actually a Tom Waits tune. Although track clearance and rights permissions were all secured to everyone’s satisfaction, it turned out that Waits had the ultimate ownership and veto.  He sued Levi’s for over a million dollars.  They were very good about it and didn’t blame us.

The girl who stars as the admirer at the window in the piece was called Cynthia. She gave up modelling straight after the shoot and hurried off to become a dentist.  Ronnie Marquette played our lead guy, a stunning looking man with the troubled soul of a fantasist. His was a developing career in TV soap opera, particularly a Californian show called  2000 Malibu Road. During the Levi’s filming, he talked to Martin and I of his childhood in New Orleans in vivid detail. Later, we learned it was entirely fabricated for our benefit. He shot himself dead in front of his girlfriend, Michelle Pfeiffer’s sister, three years later.

 

Fast forwarding from New Orleans, in 1994, I was working with the wonderful Rosie Arnold after Martin had left BBH and joined Tim Delaney.  We were given a chance to develop a poster brief to continue the 501s story.  From somewhere – probably a mutual love of stylised sci-fi movies – we alighted upon a Valley-Of-The-Giants thought that Rosie, with the photographic genius of Nadav Kander again, brought to life in London’s largest studio.  When printed on to 10 by 20 foot poster sites, they were quite hard to miss.

501 shrink spider     501 shrink dog

501 shrink foot

There were a couple of other Levi’s campaigns that Martin and I produced before Procession.

The first was some print work.  While the likes of John Hegarty and Barbara Nokes’ ‘Laundrette’ commercial and its sequels did a powerful job of endorsing the  501 brand for the mainstream audience, it was important not to neglect the cognoscenti. These were the style gurus who spent the 1980s with their noses buried in The Face and their night times lost in Heaven, the nightclub (whether they were gay or not).  Our print campaign was to speak to them.  Martin was very taken with Richard Avedon’s collection of portraits of the American West. I jotted down a few counter cultural statements that no sane fashion brand would embrace – expressions about how Levi’s looked best when they were on the point of collapse, personalised to torn fragments and scrappy threads.  In a moment of genuine liberation, Martin took the handwritten statements and blew them up to sit around his drawings of how the portraits might be positioned.

In the final event, two of the ads are actually my handwriting – ‘Every pair’ and ‘I like them best’-  while the other two are, respectively, from Nick Worthington and John Gorse.  Richard Avedon took the four portraits in New York for $100,000.  Martin went to oversee the shoot but was bidden to remain outside while the great man actually photographed his subjects.  As with all his work, Avedon then took four prints from each shot and destroyed the negatives. In this era, the ads don’t seem that extraordinary but at the time they caused a bit of a stir.  I still have a few copies of The Manipulator in which the ads appeared, a bath towel-sized publication of largely black and white imagery that was so achingly hip no one ever bought it.  You needed to be in a hangar to turn its absurdly large pages.

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Finally, there was a radio campaign.  One of the most enjoyably indulgent exercises of my working life, Martin and I spent a week in a New York studio with Joy Golden, radio producer extraordinaire and of razor wit, encouraging several slightly bewildered actors to extemporise off our writing.  After fourteen or fifteen takes, I would wander into the sound box and remove their scripts altogether, encouraging them to capture the gist in improvisation, rather than read it.  The results were then hacked down to time by our engineer during a long and fabulous week. Our agency producer, Lucy Marsden, was responsible for carrying the tapes back on our flight home.  A fabulous, funny, heron of a creature, she didn’t realise there was a hole in her bag, so forty hours of recordings were strewn across the floor at La Guardia airport as we ran for the flight.  Martin stopped, tutted and gathered up the tapes (it was that long ago) in his natty carry-on bag behind her.  Had he not, our return to BBH would have been considerably frostier than the warmth that met us.

 

[**The 501s TV script “having trouble” was a reworking of a corny old joke. Research and nervousness kept stalling it. Various people, both within the agency and at Levi’s were dead against it on grounds of taste, given its Benny Hill structure. The story was that two young girls approach a lakeside and see a a pile of clothes. A little way out, a lithe, fit guy is splashing in the water.  It’s hard to see, but the girls think he’s naked.  They steal his clothes, only for an old, withered and nude man to emerge out of the water and approach them to retrieve what are actually his clothes.  The young man, it transpires, still has his kit on.  Nick Worthington and John Gorse, a creative team almost opposite our office, had suggested the young guy should be wearing 501 shrink-to-fits and kept on finessing the ‘joke’. Eventually, with an Ansell Adams photograph, the Smashing Pumpkins song ‘Today’ and some pictures of the Pennsylvanian Amish, they combined with directing duo Vaughan and Anthea and went on to film what many consider the best commercial ever made:  ‘Creek’. Practically the only TV ad ever to have been granted a permit to be filmed in Yosemite.  When the Smashing Pumpkins refused permission for their composition to be used, the composer of the final piece turned himself into a band called Stilstkin, invented a bogus history and toured, successfully, for two or three years. A labour of several years’ persistence, the 60′ cut is below:]

 

 

Three little ‘mades’.

1EYH range
Design:  Ariel Cortese;  Words:  Nell Fane.

In amongst all this ancient history, life does go on.  My days over the last four years or so have been spent helping imagine businesses into being, with the help of exceptional people at Big Fish. These are three examples of what I have been doing.

Mostly working with food companies, Big Fish is a brand, design and marketing consultancy.  We’ll name, design and develop their stories, either to help reinvigorate a flagging business, to take an organisation to its next stage or to launch an infant one.  Least it sound horibly academic and bulshitty, it’s anything but.  The spirit is somewhere close to the same, inventive zeal I experienced at BBH in the early 1980s.  The place buzzes with energy and fizzes with real life.

Eat Your Hat is a chocolate and coffee brand created for Traidcraft, an ethical grocery business that grew up with the Fairtrade movement, based in Newcastle.  (Show me a brand, company or production process that doesn’t hurt the planet and I’ll eat my hat was the start point.)

Applekind is designed for Korean eyes and ears.  Apples change hands for anything up to £10 each in South Korea, given especially as presents at New Year and the national thanksgiving day.  I wrote about the trip we made there a little while ago.  (https://wordpress.com/post/willawdry.blog/1117)  The company is the late flowering brain child of the Kims. After running a school for thirty years in Seoul, they have “retired” to the east of the peninsular, and grow their apples in near perfect conditions in a crater valley that borders with North Korea.

Applekind box

Design:  Marie Schultz;    Words:  Jim Medd/Lee Anderson

Applekind is run with scrupulous ethics by the family.  Besides being a place of orchards, it is also destined to become a respite destination for students and refugee workers from the incessant turbulence of Korean industrial life.

The apples, in case you wondered, are absolutely fantastic.  Adam and Eve would have been at them without any need for a snakey salesman. Intense, crisp, sharply scented but not frilly, refreshing and awakening.  Other apples are cotton wool by comparison.

Finally, for now, Leap is a wild fish brand we created for New England Seafood International.  Their company has a very long name for a bloke who started selling lobsters under a bridge in Wandsworth thirty years ago.

Wild fish – well, salmon, really – is genuinely different. It has lived a free life.  The animals are carefully monitored in the great summer runs of the Pacific Northwest to avoid overfishing and maintain sustainability.  If you try out any random selection of the population with farmed and smoked salmon, the results are consistent.   Only one in thirty people (who eat fish) have ever tried the wild variety.  When they do, one in three people prefer it.  It is slightly denser, has more ‘gnyaaahh’ to it, as Fergus Henderson might say, and is definitely better for the soul.

Leap
Design:  Nicola Ansell;     Words:  Emily Wright

Tight spot.

About a year and a half after landing at BBH, I was working with Martin Galton.

We couldn’t have been more different as people.  An arranged art director/copywriter marriage thanks to John Hegarty, we’d been plonked with each other.  Martin wasn’t sure he wanted to work with anybody, let alone me, having secured his job as a lone wolf with a speculative Asda campaign that just happened – brilliantly – to chime with the stuff that had won BBH the pitch.  I wasn’t at all sure that my position was safe as a solo writer. My first art director partner, David Meldrum, had departed and I would have happily worked with a green mamba, if it meant I could stay.  I was still plagued by paranoia, having turn-coated from account executive, albeit a useless one, to copywriter.  There was precious little evidence from my geography degree that I deserved the title.

We battled with lots of grubby, hand-to-hand press work for Asda.  Our dreams were to have a go at the more sexy accounts. Reputations were being built up in the neighbouring offices – offices! – by the creative pairs behind Levi’s, Audi, Whitbread and Dr White’s campaigns, all the envy of the advertising business. Instead, flogging various products for the Leeds based supermarket was our staple diet, week in, week out. My job was to generate a headline for Asda’s tabloid press ads,  black and white galleries of nine separate, illustrated products with a price by each. These were of the ‘More dash, less cash’ variety.  One week, Martin went off to a shoot for a wrapped loaf of sliced bread, one of the items to be featured.  Once photographed, it would be converted into a black and white, halftone illustration.  Tabloid newspaper printing being what it was, halftones crudely but effectively simplified the image to avoid an end result more smudged brass rubbing than identifiable object.

Martin came back next day both amused and bemused.  The photographer, a young man, newly arrived from South Africa, had taken nearly six hours just to shoot the loaf. It was his first ever commissioned advertising work in London.   Looking at the black and white transparency, the picture seemed OK to me, but it was still, well, just bread, with a few slices flopping out from one end of the packet. What a lot of fuss. I agreed with Martin. It smacked of overkill.

The photographer’s name was Nadav Kander.

Fast forwarding, Nadav’s capture of Donald Trump for the front cover of Time’s Man Of The Year 2016 is hailed as one of the most brilliantly seditious portraits ever taken.  His capture of Obama in 2012 still sings out from the countless thousands taken before or since.  Be it people, landscape, abstract or object,  he is both peerless and fabulous. You’d hate him if he wasn’t such a charming bloke. I bet he took the same care over Trump as he did over our loaf of bread.                           https://www.nadavkander.com/

Trump

The day came when Martin and I were able to jump over the Asda wall.  We were given a brief for Pretty Polly.  The hosiery company was about to launch a line of stockings.  We hurled ourselves at the chance.  In the brash, hard, synth-dominated decade that was the Eighties, there was a lot of evidence that audiences craved a softer, more forgiving culture. Back To The Future was doing great box office. BBH was already turning heads with Levis’ advertising, ads that spoke of the gentler and simpler 1950s.  John Hegarty and Barbara Nokes had recently delivered the Nick Kamen ‘Laundrette’ commercial to the world. Together with director Roger Lyons, they presented a less aggressive male attraction, wrapped with charm, in a nostalgic tinge. It worked like wildfire.

For Pretty Polly’s launch of Nylons as a press campaign, Martin and I went retro too. John Hegarty allowed us to develop a vintage, paperback novel approach, putting pastiche gumshoe detective story or romantic fiction covers on the back of magazines. Two examples are shown above.  The backgrounds were shot for real in New York. “Authenticity” was the justification in that pre-Photoshop era. We chose the best photographer we knew: Nadav. For a few, sleepless days, Martin and he froze in various Manhattan locations. Despite buying some electric socks, both still suffered near frostbite.  Back in England, I was allowed to attend the studio shoot where we’d actually have somebody wearing the stockings, as a sop to me for staying at home and ‘doing the writing’.

Our model was Jilly Johnson.  Famous for the being the first person to appear naked in the Times newspaper, she was a glamour supermodel of her era. (In 2018, she still is.)  For the ‘Crooked Path’ composition, against Brooklyn Bridge, she had a wind machine howling at her with full force. At one, unlikely moment, her dress actually blew clean over her head, leaving her stark naked in the gale, apart from her nylons and heels, laughing her head off.  As she wandered over to the other side of the studio to scoop up the dress, Martin and I stared fixedly at the floor.  Nadav didn’t blink.  I remember the floorboards by my feet in the Britannia Row studio from that moment with extraordinary clarity.

Shortly after the campaign broke, Pretty Polly decided they wanted more, so we were instructed to think of a TV commercial.  The story of Wallace Carothers, the inventor of nylon, presented itself as a possible vehicle.  There was some discussion about taste. Genius that he was, Carothers was also plagued by depression and, tragically, took his own life very young.  In the end, we went with it and John S Clarke directed.  Shamefully, I can’t remember the name of the very beautiful star, but the retrospective piece was filmed over two very long days in Twickenham Studios.  Martin and I spent most of the time sitting by the vast, open door, giggling with our producers, Philippa Crane and Lucy Marsden.  It was a hoot.

 

After 4…

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Hertford and New College Lane, 1979

I was living the university dream. It was late autumn.  A Sunday evening.  Soggy leaves muted clicking heels on the cobblestones of Radcliffe Square. Bicycles were everywhere, as were baggy jumpers losing battles with moths and age.  Crumpets, or curling slices of toast, were held to electric bar fires in dimly orange rooms.  The spires of Oxford presided over a gloomy world of delighted ennui. It was a betwixt-and-between time of suspended activity, not quite the weekend and not quite the week.

I was in my first term of embracing what felt like liberation. We were youth playing at being old people.  I shudder at some of the memories, pipe smoking especially.  I do remember buying Brasenose College sherry from Viv, the vampish, Dot-Cotton wonder who ran the buttery with a red-headed ferocity.  It cost £1.40 a bottle, came with an ornate college label and, for all I know, had been syphoned out of a petrol pump.

The ambush that happened was to have a profound effect. There was a knock on the door of my room.  I opened it and met Philip. Jet black hair and a dark, penetrating gaze. A second year linguist from Jesus College.  He asked casually if I was a drummer.  I said yes.  With a drum kit? Yes. Would I like to play in a “melodic, European-jazz inspired” band?  Again, I said yes.  In the following pause, I offered him a glass of Brasenose sherry.  I can’t remember if he added a fourth ‘yes’ to the conversation.

That’s how I joined the Philip Dodd Quartet, just before Christmas 1979. Our first performance was in the early Spring of 1980 in the Jesus College Music Room.  (Our most recent was about three weeks ago to a garden party in Surrey.)  We were completed by Graham Brough on double bass and, a year or so later, Paul Mason on saxophone.

 

 

The quartet was to play at a number of Oxford College Balls. It was a cunning way of avoiding paying for admission tickets.  The band has played many more events since.  These last nine years have seen us, amongst other venues, at the 606 Club in Lot’s Road, Chelsea, for an annual show,  a vanity gig with good natured friends and fantastically loyal supporters.  It is a tribute to both Phil’s persistence and the forgiving nature of jazz that we’re still at it nearly forty years after we began. In between times, he has gone on to be an editor, prolific author and conductor of some seminal rock interviews, producing definitive books about both Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones.

Back in 1979,  I had my work cut out.  Before the Phil Dodd Quartet, my first Oxford experience was to join a punchy pop band, led by the indefatigable Kevin Duncan.  As lyricist, composer, conductor and publicist, he pushed us out into the student circuit with fantastic energy and a shiny leather jacket. With Mark Gibbon on bass and Rebecca Willis singing, we rejoiced under the name ‘The Inrage’.  In the post-punk, Debbie Harry era, we were were certainly of our time.

The Inrage

The Inrage, 1980.  Will Awdry, Rebecca Willis, Mark Gibbon, Kevin Duncan.

With these two guiding stars as my different musical homes, I also drummed for a succession of other bands and groups around the university. Even with only eight week terms, by the time I’d seen out three years, I’d played well over 100 times in venues that varied from pubs with beer sodden carpets to cloistered college halls and the new-ish Maison Francaise, with its fabulous acoustic. We supported Sade, Jo Jackson and Wilko Johnson.  The Revillos (what was left of the previous Rezillos) clambered on to a stage in front of us at the Jesus College Ball.  The drummer fell off both his stool and the stage and passed out.  The bass player started a “Blues in F that lasts-two-and-half hours” before he sank to his knees and fell asleep.  Playing a similar night at St Edmund Hall, two years later as dawn came up, I was with a seven piece funk band called Straight No Chaser.  Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers flicked V signs at us for nicking his audience.  Jean-Jaques Burnel, their bassist, just snarled.  We felt rather pleased as three hundred smashed students demanded encore after encore .

Kevin asked me to record a few songs after we left university and the band changed and mutated.  We continued gigging for several years. ‘Need that girl’ is a creation of its time (1985) but here captures the clarity of his voice and the energy of his songs, thrumming somewhere between Eighties pop lyric and deeper, more melodic composition. It was recorded in a garage in St Albans.  Sally Imber sings too, along with my descant. All guitars and bass are Kevin Duncan. It’s a bit long, but in the two minute ‘outro’, he somehow found the timing, the anticipation and the grace to play a soaring solo precisely to match my pre-recorded drum thrashing.  I’m still not quite sure how.

 

 

[Kevin went on to a stellar marketing career, writing more than twenty books, selling over 180,000 copies and being translated into forty languages.  And he still writes about five songs a week. I’ll drum to that.]

Stuff the doughnuts.

Dough nut jammer

Wandering round the swish Karl Fazer* campus in September 2018, just outside Helsinki, I met an old friend.  Among the historical artefacts that tell the story of Finland’s best known confectionery company, buffed to a dull shine, it was sitting in a display cabinet as part of the visitor tour.

The look is heavy metal sculpture. A pair of candlestick-like towers rise above an open, metal bowl. Each is topped with a hollow spike.  On either side are spring-loaded, palm-sized handles.  The contraption marries fearsome, medieval utility with the gleam of Twentieth Century, industrial design.

I was instantly catapulted back to the 1970s.

Cap sleeve T-shirts.  Donna’ Summer’s ‘I feel love’ pumping out in woozy, ululating thuds from the radio.  The strange excitement of listening to Capital. In Hazlemere, Bucks, the sounds of the city promised all manner of urban delight.  Even the ads, with their jingles about “Superior interiors from Vogue” or encouragements to ring and buy space in the Evening Standard Classifieds (“Nine-Oh…Three-Eight-Three-Eight-Three” intoned as if by a robot) spoke of a distant sophistication. The radio played all day long when I last met the same machine.

The contraption I saw in Finland is a doughnut filler.  Over two or three years, I used one to squirt jam into around 2,000 of the things each morning at the Progress Bakery, which was practically opposite our house.  A fantastically satisfying task, I would grab two doughnuts, freshly fried and drained, from their wire baskets and plonk them on the spikes.  Pressing down on each paddle with a rewarding squelch, brilliantly purple jam would shoot inside. I’d then chuck them into a tray of caster sugar. Once rolled and evenly covered,  I had either to arrange them onto trays for the shop, or carefully line them up by the dozen into open crates for delivery elsewhere.

For 40 pence an hour, the bakery was a holiday earner.  Starting when I was fourteen, it was my first paid work. I had to be there around five am, joining the three full-time workers.

In 1977, the Sunblest factory in nearby High Wycombe went on strike, along with every other industrial bakery in the country. The unions rattled their sabres at Jim Callaghan’s government for several weeks. Privately owned, our little business kept working. Richard and Angela, the owners, couldn’t afford not to.  Our customers and contracts were supportive but visiting pickets would argue loudly with the ladies in the shop and hurl insults. One night, a brick was thrown through the window, shattering glass across the wooden worktops. I swept it up the next morning and we all wore protective goggles for a day or two.   There were anxious moments but we kept on. Additional demand made life frantic. Local supermarkets that no longer had sliced, packet bread to sell doubled their orders and pleaded for more.  For a while, my start time became 3am. Richard looked beyond exhausted, his black rimmed eyes peering out from a face as white as flour. He told me to be careful on my walk to and from work in case “they” were waiting. In the event, nothing more happened.  The battles of Grunwick, Orgreave and Wapping were far off in the UK’s troubled, unions-versus-management future.

Making bread was primeval fun for a teenager. Into a huge vat, I emptied vast bags of flour, solid blocks of yeast and handfuls of salt.  The yeast was fresh and pungent, a rubbery brick with a vividly sharp reek. From the Recreation Ground behind the bakery, I’d been sniffing its characteristic scent, the benchmark fragrance of the Progress Bakery,  all my life, whether from the swings and roundabouts as an infant or, later, on daily dog walks in the holidays.  I’d make 140 loaves in a batch, stroking shallow gashes in the top of billowing bloomers, tins or Danish with a vicious cutthroat razor before they went in to cook. In the evenings, before leaving,  I’d drop a 50lb bag of Bun Mix 664 into the same, huge container, along with the yeast, sugar and water required to make doughnuts ready for the morning. The individual shapes would be the size of a walnut when I squished the resulting dough carefully with the cutter. Overnight, they would prove to cricket ball dimensions in the chiller, ready for the morning fry and my jam injections.

Depending on the time of year, my tasks would vary.  Hot Cross Buns were a favourite. I painted flour and water crosses on countless thousands. At Christmas, Richard let me help him make a batch of Stöllen, a German festive bread, oozing with marzipan, studded with plump, dried fruits and clouding us in a spiced, fragrant mist when we opened the oven door.  Custard tarts were an exercise in mass egg breaking, perhaps forty or fifty at a time, before sowing cinnamon over their frilly-edged pastry tops in careful pinches.  I was fascinated by them all. The deputy baker shared the same name as the boss and was, inevitably, referred to as ‘Little Richard’.  I watched as he was taken to task one day, not unkindly, about over-generosity when weighing out individual loaves from raw dough.  With the cutthroat razor, our boss Richard nicked off lumps from each as he weighed them again to check. After a few, he had a big enough wadge to make a whole new loaf.  Little Richard burned pink, humiliated.  “That’s our living,”  said the boss quietly, with steel in his voice. It was – truly – his bread and butter. Lesson learned.

When Richard and Angela took over the place from the Banham family after the tragic death of Doug, the previous baker, aged forty, they were, mysteriously, only ever referred to by their Christian names.  After some months, my unassuming mum was talking to Angela over the shop counter.  What exactly was their surname, she asked eventually. Angela blushed a deep shade of pink.

“It’s Crapp,” she whispered.

They stayed Richard and Angela after that. Anything but a crap job, I loved working for them.

Progress Bakery

*Karl Otto Fazer, who died in 1932, is listed as a ‘business person, confectioner and sport shooter’ in his Wikipedia entry.  Most Finns would add that his name is synonymous with ‘Fazer Blue’, the chocolate bar as much a part of that country’s national identity as it is delicious.

Fazer Blue

Backwards and forwards.

Lady in her home, Bahamas

Lady in her home, Bahamas.   ©Ken Griffiths 

We decided to drive down to the water’s edge.  A liberating, carefree escapade. Lured by  thoughts of a white sand beach, edged with palm trees, and the Caribbean lapping seductively at its fringes, Chris steered our monster of a jeep down the short track.

Except that it was long after midnight.

Our organiser and driver, Chris Abel was the account man. He was also an unstoppable, go-getting force of nature, full of boyish swagger. We were on a photographic shoot for a press campaign for our client,  the Bahamas Tourist Office.  Martin Galton was the art director, I was copywriting the stories and Ken Griffiths was taking the pictures, assisted by Giovanni Diffidenti.

A few weeks previously, Martin, Chris and I had been on a ‘fam trip’, organised by Sir Lynden Pindling’s government, to get to know his country: twenty five days of four-seater planes, luxury hotels, exotic feasts and debilitating cocktails.  A louche crowd of European agency and PR types,  some ad people from Charlotte, North Carolina and a hilarious product placement duo from Hollywood, we were run through a tight schedule of 5am starts and (slightly looser) finishes, usually swaying near a swimming pool surrounded by empty glasses. We saw more of the islands than most Bahamians see in a lifetime.  The hoteliers treated us royally. Hard work it was not.

Now we were back for ten days with Ken, a justly celebrated and brilliant photographer.  This was a first night off in a week.

The four-by-four jeep radiated bulky confidence.  Dirty, rusty brown, it roared and snorted as we bounced towards the beach.  The Eleutheran night cloaked us in thick, humid comfort. I’m not sure if we had Ken’s priceless Gandolfi camera on board, but we certainly had some gear besides myself and Chris.  The photography team and Martin had retired, sensibly, to bed.  We’d drunk our own bodyweight in Kalik beer and whatever rum we found flowing through the small settlement of Governor’s Harbour.

Just as we reached the beach, there was a loud, percussive ‘kerrunnnkk’. Our wave of alcohol-fuelled positivity – and Chris’s extraordinary forward momentum – came to a immediate halt.  The truck stopped.  It wouldn’t move. We sank several inches into the sand while the engine whined. Chris swore a lot. We jumped out.

The big-wheeled wolf of a jeep turned out to possess far more of a sheep-like engine than its looks suggested.  The axle had sunk into a pothole, settling into the soft, dusty sand and now the thing refused to budge. Suddenly the lapping waves sounded like an ominously advancing tide. Desperate to reverse the vehicle, we rocked it to and fro on hastily gathered drift wood splints, but it simply sank further with our feeble efforts. The engine whinnied on pathetically, with no horse power to go backwards.

We were drunk, in charge of government property, on a beach where we shouldn’t have been driving, without insurance. A world-class photographer was depending on us getting him to the right spot the following day. The tide appeared to be coming in.  A joy-riding write-off of thousands of dollars of equipment wasn’t exactly going to play well with our London bosses. Those smart Bahamian police might show up at any point and throw us in jail. Not that unlikely a prospect, given how little else there seemed to be for them to do.

Panic, paranoia and palpitations set in, mixed with extreme tiredness as elation gave way to sick dread. Eventually, having scrabbled at the sand with our bare hands, broken finger nails, fallen palm fronds and anything we could throw under the wheels for approaching an hour, we wandered back to our simple hotel, about a five minute walk away and slept. I dreamt of the tide engulfing the vehicle and all the equipment being washed away.

About two hours later, as dawn broke, we woke up Giovanni and explained what had happened.  Calmly and without surprise, he walked down to beach with us. The first relief was that the tide had been minimal and the jeep was still dry, twenty feet from the sea. The Italian solved the problem in seconds flat. “Let’s try driving forwards,” he suggested and took the wheel. While Chris and I gave a simple push from the back, he did just that. It had never occurred to us to try it the night before.  The jeep bucked up onto the freshly wet sand.  The tyres dug in and held.   Giovanni drove off, through the shallow water at the shore, back on to the road and on we went to a day of photography in bright, sparkling light.

The campaign, such as it was, became four press ads. Sir Lynden Pindling, the Bahamian prime minister, came under more and more scrutiny as his personal wealth grew, seemingly without explanation. Amongst allegations of backhanders from Colombian drug lords, there was a strong suggestion that the advertising campaign had been conveniently been put together as a “tax dodge”or, possibly, to throw the opposition parties off the scent of corruption. It was never properly explained.  Soon after, Sir Lynden was removed from office, despite the affection of many Bahamians. The account quietly slipped away from BBH.

Giovanni graduated from working as Ken Griffith’s assistant, going on to become a brilliant war photographer.  His images from countries affected by conflict are seering but always human.

Martin and I continued to see Ken back in London, as his editorial work continued, particularly with The Observer.  The trademark, Antipodean tones never left him.   He died of motor neurone disease aged 69 in 2014 after a difficult few years.  His work still packs a cinematic punch, vivid portraits not just of people, but places and a particular epoch.  The shot at the top of this piece was captured in a little house in a short interlude, during our time there; the one below is from his dignified study of the homeless in London, entitled Dossers.

www.kengriffiths.co.uk/projects/

www.giovannidiffidenti.it/portfolio/

Ken Griffiths with Dossers

Ken Griffiths with friends, Lincoln’s Inn Fields ©Ken Griffiths 

The Polish hitch.

Renault 4 Paris 1976

It was hot and sultry and I was standing by a dual carriageway.  Car after car sped past me under flat, white skies. I’d been there since before noon, facing the oncoming traffic, standing hopefully upstream from a lay-by.  My rucksack was parked discreetly on the verge.  I didn’t want to look like a bulky passenger.

It was a Saturday in September, 1976.  That morning, I’d had one ride from south of Clermont Ferrand to a roundabout outside Riom.  A journey of perhaps 15 minutes.  Paris was still over 400 kilometres away.  The train to the Calais ferry from the Gard Du Nord was booked for noon on Sunday.  Anxiety gnawed away as minutes became hours.  Comfortably fed French drivers buzzed past, heading home or out shopping,  blind to a hitchhiker during their precious weekends.

For ten days, two school friends and I had walked around the volcanic landscape of the Puy-de-Dôme. Starting in high summer, our westward march towards Mont-Dore had been magnificent.  As we began to circle back, the season tipped;  skies were painted a deeper, technicolour hue and heavier dews drenched the grass outside my tent. Autumn beckoned, but the heat held.

My companions, Mike and Tim, were both 16.  I was a year younger.  Hitchhiking as a trio was a non-starter, with three large rucksacks.  For our journey back to Paris, we decided to split and I would go solo. The theory was that I spoke better French. Standing in the headachy light, my stomach a washing machine of worry,  any confidence ebbed steadily into the grass. I told myself I’d wait until 4pm and then get to a train station, heading for a bigger town north and better hitching conditions.

I played games in my head.  In the next fifty cars, one would stop.  It would be the third red car.  Or the seventh white one.  It would be a couple.  A family.  It would have a roof rack…  Not one of the bets paid off.  Slightly numb, I stopped looking into each windscreen and kept my thumb out.

There was a creak.  A metallic sigh.  Coming to, I looked at the lay-by behind me.  A dark, battered Renault 4 had braked and pulled in.  The overshoot suggested it hadn’t stopped for me.  I stared, blankly.

An owlish, bespectacled head manoeuvred its way out of the driver’s window and peered back. The passenger door opened, and a woman leaned out.  Her hair was in a bun.  They beckoned me to join them. I trotted up.  In amongst a torrent of ‘Merci’s’, I mumbled “Montlucon?”, “Bourges?” and, chancing my luck, “Orléans?”, with what I hoped was polite intonation. They simply indicated that I should get in.

Vaguely but charmingly, the couple said they were heading north.  They must have been in their late sixties.  She was very neatly presented, he a caricature presentation of French dressing.  A moustache. Slightly unkempt hair.  A dark blue serge shirt with an even darker, shapeless waistcoat.  We drove on while I explained myself,  what I had been doing and the plan to get to Paris to go on home. My school term was waiting.  After as full a description as my schoolboy language skills could furnish, the conversation petered out. We kept driving.

A wave of relief to be on the move engulfed me.  I was glad the interrogation had stopped. For the moment, I didn’t want to contemplate the next step. Ahead lay the ladder of lifts required to reach Paris and its inner city ‘camping’. (In the Seventies, the campsite was a celebrated heart, revered amongst the itinerant tribes of student travellers coursing round the Republic’s arteries.)  I closed my eyes and drifted.  Vividly, to this day,  I can remember hearing the neat, precise woman murmuring clearly to her husband, “He’s very young. He’s been in the sun all day long.”

I woke some time later as we stopped to get petrol, somewhere near Orléans.  The car had been travelling for two hours.  Awkwardly, I apologised for having been asleep for so long, but the apologies were brushed off.  They gave me sweet biscuits from a packet with a smear of jam in their centre, and we drank water.

They told me they would take me all the way to Paris.

I spluttered my thanks, amazed.  The drive went on for hours more, streams of traffic cloying to thick rivers in the closing stages.  The city was in full rentre mode, as holidaying Parisians returned from the south. Against the dying sunset, the distant skyline took on the painted qualities of Disney’s The Aristocats.  A quiet, excited satisfaction about re-meeting my companions began to grow.  I was still unsure of how to get to the Paris campsite and nervous at the prospect of spending the night there alone if they’d failed to make it. School abounded with tales of druggie hippies and campsite thefts. Mobile phones were still, effectively, twenty years off. There were plenty of reasons to remain anxious.

The couple were called Slobojanski.  We chatted on and off on the trip, but they didn’t go in to their past in any detail. To my ear, they sounded emphatically French but they told me their family came from Poland.  As we headed inside the Périphérique, it was after 10pm. At that point, Mme Slobojanski insisted, politely but firmly,  that I would spend the night with them at their apartment.  Overwhelmed, I was reduced to another torrent of thanks and then, swiftly, mute gratitude.

Their flat was somewhere in the north of Paris, a single room with a bathroom off it.  Their bed was in an alcove curtained off from the main living space and kitchen.  I think we ate bread and cheese.  I was exhausted. They pulled the curtain across and I slept on cushions on the floor.  The following morning, Mme Slobojanski produced milky coffee and a tartine, before Monsieur proudly took me down to the basement car park to show off his motorbike.  I knew – and know – as much about engines as a baguette, but his eyes gleamed as he talked through the pistons and sprockets.  The bike had the same, petrolly smell as my father’s Atco lawnmower and looked of similar, antiquated vintage. My host’s reverence for the machine was palpable, a passion buried all the time he’d been driving the day before.

Mr Slobojanski drove me to the Gard du Nord after I said my effusive goodbyes to Madame. They flatly refused any offer of money.  Instead, Monsieur dropped me off with a smile but little ceremony, and within two minutes, I spotted Tim and Mike making their way into the front of the station.  Our return to England was uneventful.  From home, I wrote to thank my special French Polish hosts again.

Years later, I look back at what happened and realise the true meaning of the word, ‘generosity’.  Helping without fuss, the Slobojanskis were clearly neither wealthy,  nor ostentatious. They showed immense, unquestioning kindness.  My lucky encounter embedded a belief that only by keeping your heart, mind and – especially these days – borders open, will you benefit from anything approaching the best in life.