Friday, 5 December 2014

Writing and thinking

I’m off, writing stuff longer than postcards for a while.

Toodle pip.
(BTW I just passed 600 blogposts. Phew.)

Friday, 28 November 2014

Complacency and the Death of Phil Hughes

The complacent response of the media to the death of Australian batsman Phil Hughes, not least from the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew, is perhaps to be expected. “It’s all part of the game,” seems to be the most common reaction.

The felling of Hughes in Sydney by a fast, rising ball highlights the appalling design deficiencies of protective helmets.

I was there in 2002 at the WACA in Perth when England’s Alex Tudor was poleaxed by a 90mph delivery from Brett Lee. It was sickening. Poor Tudor was never the same again.

That one went through the front of the visor, whereas the Hughes blow struck him on the completely unprotected back of the head. Both injuries happen not frequently, but on a pretty regular basis.

It seems that helmet manufacturers are more concerned with turning out a product that looks cool than with real effectiveness. Perhaps the death of Hughes will prompt the cricketing authorities and those manufacturers into producing something that’s actually fit for purpose.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

What Charles means is…

Stimulated by some photographs of the early days of Saatchi & Saatchi, the first meeting of the Garland-Compton board with them after the ‘merger’ in 1974 came back to me.

At the head of the table at 80 Charlotte Street was Charles Saatchi. On his right brother Maurice and on his left Tim Bell.

It fell to Charles to speak to us. He mumbled for five minutes or so. I don’t recall anything that he said – I’m not sure that I could decipher a word of it. Not his thing at all.

Silence fell over the room. What had we got into? This seemed like a visit from Cosa Nostra.

Then Tim spoke up.

‘What Charles means is that Saatchi’s is the fastest growing, most creative advertising agency in Britain. And our intention, together with you guys, is to become the biggest, most creative agency on the planet.’

Oh, well that’s all right. And that’s what happened.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Immigration and UKIP

Dennis Skinner, the Beast of Bolsovcr, says it like it is about immigration and UKIP:

Never thought the day would come when I'd be cheering him on.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Trolls ‘R’ Us

Confronted by the latest trolling scandal, Sophie said to me: ‘Of course, we just used to shout at the radio or the tellie when people said things that annoyed us.’
And it’s true that the situation has been transformed by the availability via social media of direct access to the targets.
So, while threatening dire retribution on some public figure is horrible in all circumstances, at least in our own lounge rooms no one else is affected (aside from our own immediate family, who know already what loud-mouthed bigots we are).

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Getting to Yes in Europe

David Cameron talks about reforming the European Union and getting a better deal for Britain. But it seems that his only negotiating skill on view is to use “strong-arm” tactics ‒ grandstanding, making unilateral demands and threats ‒ and then to appear surprised that other countries are failing to fall into line.

If he were to make any progress at all, on any of the issues that matter, he would have to build alliances founded on mutual interest and mutual trust. This could only be achieved behind closed doors, not in open session. In reality, he seems to have no friends in Europe at all and minimal leverage.

The fact that he seems either unwilling or unable to build these alliances suggests that his real agenda is to create a situation where Britain’s exit from Europe is inevitable.

If this is not the case, perhaps a basic course in negotiating skills would be appropriate. I’d suggest starting with a close reading of Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes*.

*Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury

Saturday, 8 November 2014

White Horse – Number 1

I wrote about the new management of our local pub in King’s Sutton (or gastro-pub I should say), the White Horse, not so long after they moved in and transformed the place – food, drink, service, value, ambience etc.

I walk past just about every day, and we go in to eat there with pleasure on a fairly regular basis, so it’s become clear that business has steadily grown under the watchful eye of front-of-house Julie and chef Hendrik.

What I hadn’t realised is that they are already Number 1 on Tripadvisor out of no less than 147 eateries in the Banbury area. What a gift for our lovely country village.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Slooshying Schubert

Richard Sykes writes to me in response to my question (following the Schubert Project at the Oxford Lieder Festival):  "Where were all the students in this great city of learning...?"

Roger, have you read A Clockwork Orange? Alex, reformed by the drugs and aversion therapy to which he is subjected, finds that his musical tastes have changed:

"It was like something soft getting into me and I could not pony why. What I wanted these days I did not know. Even the music I liked to slooshy in my own malenky den was what I would have smecked at before, brothers. I was slooshying more like romantic songs, what they call Lieder, just a goloss and a piano, very quiet and like yearny, different from when it had been all bolshy orchestras and me lying on the bed between the violins and the trombones and kettledrums. There was something happening inside me, and I wondered if it was like some disease or if it was what they had done to me that time upsetting my gulliver and perhaps going to make me real bezoomy."

I rather suspect that this is Burgess reflecting on his own experience of evolving musical tastes and the ways in which we experience some musical revelations only as we age. Certainly that was my experience with Lieder. As an Oxford undergraduate I loved "classical" music, and attended concerts in the city. But I would not have seriously considered attending a Lieder recital. Now, in my late 40s, something has happened inside me, few things give me more pleasure, and I love to slooshy Lieder in my own malenky den and in Oxford's malenky concert hall too. In years to come, I'm sure some of those students will, too.

So good to be reminded of the extraordinary polymathic Anthony Burgess, who regarded himself as both composer and writer, although his compositions have rarely been given airtime.

I came to lieder rather earlier than Richard Sykes – in my early twenties ‒ but if I’d been a student in Oxford before connecting with the genre, I’d have missed out too.

My own epiphany came when I bought Saga’s 1966 recording of Janet Baker singing Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Still essential listening. Here she is with pianist Martin Isepp in Schubert’s ‘Der Musensohn’:



Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Last of Schubert

To the final concert of the Oxford Lieder Festival. My ninth in the series a mere sampling of the 109 events on offer over the past three weeks.

It’s been a magnificent achievement, including all of Schubert’s 650-odd songs the first time this has been done in Britain. And not just concerts, but also masterclasses, family events, study days, lecture-recitals, socials and so on.  

It has been the brainchild of the excellent accompanist Sholto Kynoch, who recruited the finest singers and pianists, old and young, organised the whole thing into brilliantly-conceived programmes, recruited a band of cheerful helpers, performed personally in many of the events, and was around meeting and greeting throughout. What a stunning achievement.

My own special memories?

The young Swiss baritone baritone Manuel Walser singing Schlegel settings and the even-younger Slovenian soprano Nika Gorič singing Schlechta; the Swedish mezzo Maria Forsström singing Schiller; Schubert’s Octet, brilliantly played by the Principals of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; from the older generation, Sir Thomas Allen singing Winterreise and the great Dutch bass Robert Holl singing Mayrhofer settings.

And, in the final concert yesterday, the seventy-something year old Sarah Walker, melting hearts with a superb all-female chorus in one of Schubert’s Serenades, and the last thoughts of Schubert in the Heine settings from Schwanengesang, sung with profound stillness by Jonathan Lemalu (above). Lastly the intimate playing of clarinettist Mark van de Wiel in “The Shepherd on the Rock”.

But… where were all the students in this great city of learning? Just a fiver for them on the door. Conspicuous by their absence.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

How's your German?

I am currently steeped in German Romantic poetry – in particular Schiller, Schulze, Mayrhofer, Hölty, Heine, Müller and the Schlegel brothers preparing for concerts in Oxford filled with Schubert’s settings of their work.
This brought to mind one of those forks in the road that confront us from time to time. I was working very happily for Garland-Compton in its pre-Saatchi days, running our biggest client, Rowntree.
They had recently taken over a leading competitor, Mackintosh’s, and the brilliant, glamorous young Tony Mackintosh had become leader of their merged European division.
Tony would sweep into our offices in Charlotte Street, brought there in his black-chauffeur-driven white limo, a vision, all blue jeans and fur coat. The latter he would hand immediately to our receptionist, she on the verge of meltdown, and ask for me.
It was all very 1969.
In due course, Tony summoned me to his offices – not in Halifax or Norwich or York, where the major factories and offices were (and are), but in a fine Georgian house in Park Lane, Mayfair. There he invited me to leave the agency and join his team in a senior marketing role. I was flattered, of course, but turned him down graciously, I hope.
At one point in the meeting, we discussed European languages. The plain fact is that, although I have some words and phrases in most of them, I am reasonably fluent only in English.
“How's your German?” he asked.
“Well, I’m familiar with a good deal of Romantic poetry,” I said, “but I’m not sure that the vocabulary would be very useful in marketing meetings.”
Here’s a sample, useful in recent days in Oxford: Abendstern (evening star); Einsamkeit (solitude); Abschied (farewell); Klage (lament); Weinen (tears); Heimweh (homesickness); Sehnsucht (longing); Erwartung (anticipation)…

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Hurdy-gurdy man in Oxford

To Oxford again, latest in the Schubert lieder recitals. This time it was the wonderful baritone, Sir Thomas Allen, singing the great song cycle, Die Winterreise – the Winter’s Journey.

Schubert set this tragic series of poems by his contemporary, Wilhelm Müller. Although the composer admired Müller’s work immensely, he only set one of his poems as a single song, ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’, the Shepherd on the Rock. But he set two long series by the poet which together established the song-cycle as a major form within music – Die Schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreisse.

Curiously, although I’ve known the Winter's Journey intimately from recordings over several decades, it was the first time I’d heard it in the flesh. And what an ideal introduction this was by Thomas Allen. He brings a lifetime of experience to it, not just of singing and acting, but also of life itself.

The journey starts with a young man, disappointed in love, and ends with him observing an aged street musician, an organ-grinder:

There behind the village,
stands a hurdy-gurdy man,
with stiff fingers,
he plays as best he can.

Barefoot on the ice,
he staggers to and fro,
and his little plate
remains empty for ever.

No one wants to hear him,
no one looks at him,
and the dogs are growling
around the old man.

And he lets everything go on
as it will;
he turns, and his hurdy-gurdy
never stands still.

Strange old man,
shall I go with you?
Will you turn your hurdy-gurdy

to my songs?

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Hyperventilating with Lord Carrington

Everyone associates Saatchi & Saatchi with Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative Party, but in fact Garland Compton, in the days before it became Saatchis, pitched and won the business in the run-up to one or other of the previous 1974 elections. Both were effectively won by Labour, so it’s not surprising that there’s no residual memory.

But I recall the pitch. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. The great and good of the party, led by the terrifying Lord Carrington, were lined up in front of me, waiting for my words of wisdom. I hyperventilated, scarcely able to get a word out.

How on earth did we win the work? I've no idea.

Afterwards, I told one or two people what had happened to me and got consistent advice, best summed up as: ‘You’d probably be better off not doing presentations. Stick to what you’re good at, whatever that is.’

Of course, that made me determined to get better at presenting – and at dealing with my nerves in such scary situations.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Leaving Saatchi

The recent serialisation of Lord Tim Bell’s memoirs in the Daily Mail with its exposé of the ‘backstabbing, booze and screaming rows’*, put me in mind of the difficult time I had had in leaving the firm.

At thirty-one, I’d come to the conclusion that, to get experience as a CEO in the advertising business, I needed to leave Saatchi and Saatchi, the hottest agency on the planet at that time.

I had found another, smaller, agency that was looking for someone to succeed the dashing Rupert Chetwynd as MD. And they wanted me to do that.

Back at Saatchi, I was quite surprised, when I told Tim Bell of my plans, that he didn’t follow my reasoning at all. In fact they wanted me to stay. And so I found myself in the presence of the legendary Charles Saatchi.

What would it take to keep me at Saatchi’s? The offers came thick and fast. Salary increases, trains, boats, planes. Anything you like. Oh, and by the way we’d like you to be managing director.

The problem with that offer was that the agency already had a whole raft of people called chairmen, deputy chairmen, managing directors, deputy MDs and so on. I couldn’t see that becoming MD would have any reality to it. So I declined his kind offer as graciously as I could.

As I was leaving his office, Charles stopped me: “I’d just like to say one thing to you… It won’t be as easy out there.”

How right he was. In those days, winning business at Saatchi’s was a walk in the park.

But how was I to know that?


Friday, 17 October 2014

Wikipedia and Misia

Academics the world over remain sniffy about Wikipedia. Yet it is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most valuable triumphs of the internet.

What prompted this thought was a rekindling of interest in the extraordinary life of Misia Sert. Born in 1872, she was a pianist (her teacher Gabriel Fauré), who married three times. She was a close friend of the impresario Diaghilev and became the cultural arbiter in Paris for several decades.

Proust enshrined her in two ways in his In Search of Lost Time: as Princess Yourbeletieff (sponsor of the Ballets Russes) and as the gruesome Madame Verdurin.

All this one can learn from the Wikipedia entry on Misia, which I note has doubled in length and acquired a dozen footnotes since I last googled it.

Ah well. Academia has been known to give the impression of catching up with the rest of the world – sometimes at a distance of twenty years or so…

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Schubert in Oxford

How blessed we are, to live near Oxford. Smaller than London, Paris or New York, but nevertheless with so much going on.

This month the city hosts a three-week festival – all the songs of Schubert. Over 650 of them.

It’s an amazing feat, the brainchild of pianist-impresario Sholto Kynoch, who has organised (and performed in) his Oxford Lieder Festival since its inception. Most of the events are at Holywell – not a ‘concert hall’, but an intimate ‘music room’ with ideal acoustics. Opened in 1748, is it the oldest public music venue in the world?  

And the performers this year – a dazzling array of the finest singers of German song, including Sir Thomas Allen, Wolfgang Holzmair, Sarah Connolly, Angelika Kirschlager, Ian Bostridge, Robert Holl and so many more. Plus the finest pianist-accompanists.  

I caught up with it at lunchtime yesterday – a recital of Schubert’s songs to poems by the brothers Schlegel. I was looking forward to the soprano Kate Royal, who was wonderful, as expected, but the revelation was the young Swiss baritone Manuel Walser (above), a pupil of Thomas Quasthoff. What an artist!

Was this his debut in Britain? It seems so. Such a future he has before him.

And I have tickets for several more concerts in the series. Hurrah!  

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Things that just ain’t so

One of the most popular consultant visuals is the one that divides the topic in hand into things we know we know, things we know we don’t know, things we don’t know we know, and things we don’t know we don’t know. It’s a useful diagnostic tool.

Of course, there’s another category, not captured by the graph, but neatly expressed by the American cowboy Will Rogers (or was it wise Mark Twain?):

It's not the things you don't know what gets you into trouble. It's the things you do know that just ain't so.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Learning from history

Some quotes we seem condemned to repeat.

I’m thinking of course of George Santayana’s most famous line from his 1905 book Reason in Common Sense:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

But hold on. Wasn’t that one of Churchill’s? Or was it John Buchan?

Actually, it was the Dublin-born philosopher Edmund Burke in the 18th century who wrote:

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

We happy few in Birmingham

To Symphony Hall in Birmingham for the Australian Chamber Orchestra on tour. Perfect programme, brilliantly played.

What could be more delicious than this: one of Haydn’s most scintillating symphonies, the 'Hen', written for Paris; Mozart at his most profound, his last piano concerto, beautifully played by Steven Osborne; a brand new work by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, post-Pendereckian, wonderfully atmospheric in that hall, and with the composer on stage with the band playing an amplified sitar; and Tchaikovsky at his most joyfully ecstatic, his Souvenir de Florence.

The ACO really isn’t just another chamber orchestra. They are world-class and have a very distinct character energetic yet soulful, standing to play, swaying, absolute unity, all in black. Tremendous audience reaction.

So what’s the problem? The hall was maximum 15% occupied. Maybe less. Acres of empty space.

Had the Symphony Hall marketing and publicity people gone on strike?

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Not sunk in yet…

That’s golfer Jamie Donaldson’s response to having played the final winning shot for the European team at the Ryder Cup on Sunday.

‘It’s not sunk in yet…’
That’s what sportsmen and women say when they achieve some important milestone. All of them. It’s become the standard cliché. And usually in answer to the same question, ‘How does it feel…?’

But what does it really mean?

‘I’ve been working very hard and don’t know how to access my feelings at this point’?
‘I don’t have any feelings now, but I might later’?
‘That’s such a stock question, so here’s a stock answer’?

When they say it, I always wonder how it will be different when it has finally ‘sunk in’, and how they might recognise that that moment has arrived..

When it finally has 'sunk in', is the feeling usually better or worse than in the immediate aftermath? I suppose the expectation is that it will be better, but, for example with silver medal winners, research shows that it’s worse – and probably, sadly, from the outset.

How do I feel about this blogpost, now that it’s written? It’s not…  

Monday, 29 September 2014

Why so many Great Aussie Singers?

Last Tuesday Tony Locantro and I did a joint talk to the Recorded Vocal Art Society in London entitled ‘More Australian Singers on Record’.

‘More’ because this was Tony’s second go with them – he had previously done the premier division Aussie singers (Nellie Melba, Frances Alda, Florence Austral, Peter Dawson, Joan Hammond, Joan Sutherland and so on).

This time around we featured a new range of singers, many of them just as good as the first lot, but who had been substantially forgotten (including the first recording of a female singer in Britain, Syria Lamonte in 1898, the popular radio baritone Clem Williams, and two discs which may well be unique: one of Australia’s most successful composers, Alfred Hill, singing his own most famous song, ‘Waiata Poi’, and the great baritone, Harold Williams, in a rousing Cobb and Co song, ‘Old John Bax’).

As is usual on such occasions, I was asked why it is that Australia has produced such an amazing and continuous line-up of terrific vocalists. And, as usual, I responded, ‘Well, I don’t really know.’

Is it because there was not so much to do by way of entertainment before the advent of television, so that people had to make their own? Although the population was quite small, Australia had the highest per capita ownership of pianos in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Is that a relevant factor? Did singing become compellingly fashionable as a social asset? Was vocal skill seen as a way of escaping from poverty? Is the climate in some way relevant?

Did the extraordinary success of Nellie Melba provide a major sustaining role-model? Or was it perhaps connected with the vowel sounds produced by Australians and the resulting embouchure? That was the theory of the great teacher of so many successful young Australian singers in Paris, Mathilde Marchesi. Maybe all of these were factors in the rise of outstanding singers over a century and more.

When our set of four CDs, ‘From Melba to Sutherland’, is published in a few months’ time, you’ll be able to answer that question for yourselves!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Othello/Otello ‒ black or white?

What a problem Verdi left to us in casting his Otello.

It’s not such a problem nowadays with the original Shakespeare. As early as 1959 I saw the amazing Paul Robeson on the stage at Stratford (Sam Wanamaker his savage Iago, Mary Ure a delectable Desdemona). And later (in 1989) Willard White at the Young Vic (Iago Ian McKellen, Desdemona Imogen Stubbs).

If only Verdi hadn’t conceived his Moor as a tenor, both of those great black bass-baritones might have been just the ticket. But he didn’t. He demands not just any old tenor, but a genuine dramatic one, with a powerful ringing top and a baritonal timbre. What’s more, one who can act. These creatures are hard to find.

And all that is still not enough. In our enlightened times, it’s no longer satisfying to have a white man blacked up, often conjuring up stereotypical black gestures and accents. Shades of the ghastly Laurence Olivier performance.

When I saw the exciting Graham Vick production of the Verdi with his Birmingham Opera Company a few years ago, Vick cast the West Indian Ronald Samm in the role. Samm was good, perhaps very good. But not great.

So what was David Alden to do in his new production for ENO at the Coliseum?

He has at his disposal perhaps the finest dramatic tenor of this generation, the Australian Stuart Skelton, who has the ideal vocal equipment and acts powerfully, but is oh so white. Alden has left Skelton au naturel, no blacking up. And the result is an unforgettable evening in the opera theatre.

And yet. And yet, there’s still something missing in this wonderful evening, and that is the shocking fact that the Moor is black, not white a former slave, an outsider and misfit in Venetian society.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Hills of home

We’ve not heard much from expatriate Scots in recent weeks. So many feel such a strong affiliation, roots ‒ and Robert Louis Stevenson, living in Samoa in 1893, expressed it all so powerfully.

Blows the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying,
Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,
My heart remembers how!

Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
Standing-stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races,
And winds, austere and pure.

Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
Hills of home! and to hear again the call;
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,
And hear no more at all.

I posted these verses, ‘To SR Crockett’, about the ‘Grey Galloway land’ last year, but now seems a good time to re-visit them.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Conversing in the car

I took my now-retired English teacher from school at Uppingham, Gordon Braddy, on a day trip to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at Birmingham University.
We saw so many fine works there Botticelli, Veronese, van Dyck, Rubens, Poussin, Dahl (above*), Murillo, Gainsborough, Turner, Rossetti, Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Monet, van Gogh, Rodin, Gauguin, Derain, Magritte, Hodgkin… His first time there.

The journey was some two hours by car in each direction (including me losing my way in both directions, somewhere around Spaghetti Junction). We talked intimately and continuously.

At one point, Gordon remarked how good such journeys are in promoting rich conversation… ‘much better than trains.’

I suppose the fact that driver and passenger sit so close to one another, but necessarily without eye contact, has a lot to do with that.  

*Johan Christian Dahl (1785-1857, Norwegian), ‘Mother and Child by the Sea’

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Conversation not Presentation

In a current article in Forbes*, my colleague George Bradt enjoins us to give up on presentations and have conversations instead.
My own epiphany on this subject came on a trip to Hamburg. I had been expecting a one-to-one meeting to discuss innovation with the Unilever marketing director there. Instead I was confronted by a phalanx of marketing, innovation and R&D people.
‘Well, Roger, we are greatly looking forward to your presentation,’ said Herr Marketing Director.

Presentation? What presentation? I didn’t have one.
‘Sorry,’ I responded. ‘But I think it would be much more useful if we were to have a conversation.’
There was much puzzlement around the room. What kind of presentation was a conversation?
It took a while to get going, but in the end it was richer and more thought-provoking than any presentation, tapping into all their shared knowledge and insight and enthusiasm. And mine too.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Scotland the Brave?

It’s never been easy, making a living in Scotland. In recent decades, there has been the oil to hold up the economy and before that there were all those UK-based public service jobs (including the army) that provided consistent employment.

Of course, many of the Scots being fine entrepreneurs, historically it was England and the British Empire that provided many with a platform to exploit their talents (including my own ancestors).

Presumably the oil won’t last for ever, so, unhitched from England and Wales – with a YES vote looking more and more likely – their best chance would seem to be in the EU, assuming that the EU keeps them on.

Scotland the Brave? My old boss, Bill Weithas, always used to equate bravery with high risk.

It’s their choice. Roll on September 18.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Searching for the Great Australian Opera

Americans seek perpetually for the Great American Novel. Perhaps the equivalent Down Under is the search for the Great Australian Opera.

The first to have been composed and produced in that place was Isaac Nathan’s Don John of Austria, premièred in Sydney in 1846, and recently revived by Alexander Briger. Briger is the nephew of conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, both of them descendants of Nathan.  

I’ve recently been listening to Richard Meale’s Voss, which strikes me as a strong contender as GAO.

But currently, I’m bowled over by the so-far unstaged Sappho of Peggy Glanville-Hicks, who not only wrote the music, but also created the libretto from a play by Lawrence Durrell. It was commissioned by San Francisco Opera in the early 1960s, but was never performed by them. Two years ago it was recorded professionally in Lisbon the brainchild of young Australian conductor, Jennifer Condon (above), who assembled a fine group of singers with the Gulbenkian Orchestra.

Time for a full production, Opera Australia?

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Strolling through the National Gallery in Canberra

In Canberra, a city with so much fine architecture from the 20th century, we had the opportunity to spend time in the National Gallery of Australia. It’s a collection and building that I’ve known and revisited over three decades.

While the collection itself has much of great interest – there are over 150,000 works in it – the building is (and always has been) problematical.

It was designed by Australian architect Colin Madigan in the 1960s, with advice from the previous director of the Guggenheim in New York, JJ Sweeney. And that’s where the deepest problems seem to start. Madigan followed the Guggenheim’s core concept, creating a spiral. But while this is immediately self-evident in New York, it’s scarcely discernible in Canberra, seeming to be more a jumble of interconnected spaces.

This wouldn’t matter quite so much if there was adequate signage around the building. But there isn’t. So one walks from one space to another, scarcely aware that the works are from any particular context, or location, or style, or time.

Added to that, there is very limited information on view about the works themselves – title, date and artist, yes but today’s visitors to art museums expect and deserve so much more.

 It all feels so unloved. And unlovable.  

What’s more, it’s still difficult to find the main entrance, the way in. This has always been a problem area, one which preoccupied previous directors, and was tackled, unsuccessfully, by the current incumbent, who is shortly to retire.

There’s so much for his successor to tackle, but I’m not at all clear how all these issues might be resolved short of starting over again.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Changi surprises

Visiting for the first time the museum and chapel dedicated to the prisoner-of-war camp at Changi in Singapore, the first surprising thing we learned was that 90% of the visitors come from Australia.

Changi has always had a special resonance for Aussies, some 16,000 of them being incarcerated there after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. The camp had a particular reputation for the brutality of its regime.

A second surprise was to discover that Australians were by no means the largest contingent there. There were twice as many British prisoners. But most numerous of all were the Indians, members of the Indian Army based in Singapore, fighting with the British.

I wondered why the Indians are scarcely mentioned in the excellent museum displays. This gradually became clearer. At that time, many Indians were concerned primarily to evict the British from India, so when the Japanese offered them an alternative to the hardships of POW life, many decided to join up with the emerging Indian National Army in support of the Japanese war effort.

The most significant contributions of the INA were in fighting against the British at the Battles of Imphal and Kohima (in North-East India) and through Burma.

Later that day, we came across a memorial to the INA in the Esplanade Gardens.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Vincent Nolan RIP

I first met Vincent Nolan some forty years ago. He came to teach Synectics to a group of us at Garland-Compton (shortly before it morphed into Saatchi and Saatchi). I was in my late twenties and had risen quickly in the advertising business, but learning from Vincent undoubtedly transformed my life.

It dawned on me that one of my main skills up to that point was in identifying weaknesses in other people’s thinking and wielding the scalpel, and that this approach, while it had helped me to be successful, was of very limited value in promoting real creativity and innovation (the lifeblood of marketing communications). Vincent taught us that a better approach was first to articulate the value in emerging ideas, then going on to identify the key issues and problem-solve them.

This may seem simple, even obvious, but it required some complete personal rewiring in myself, changes that have lived at the heart of my life and work ever since.

Following that early encounter, I brought Vincent into each successive new role I found myself in – training my new teams in the whole Synectics bag of tricks. Perhaps most powerfully this was achieved at Lintas in Sydney, where, in a succession of visits from him, most colleagues in the agency were given the treatment. This was a major factor in enabling us to work together more effectively and creatively – and as a consequence we were able to rise from eighth in the local league table to second in just five years, quadrupling profits in the process.

Eventually I joined Synectics myself, as Vincent gradually wound down his life's work, concentrating more on his cello and his golf.  

At 85, Vincent Nolan died last Sunday, 17 August.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Standing up for Jonas

It’s not every day that opera house orchestras get to emerge, blinking, into the light above ground level. But that’s what happened to the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra this last week as they appeared with the German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House.

I say ‘appeared with’ because although the audience had come to hear the Great Divo, the orchestra occupied half the programme without him, playing splendidly – overtures to I vespri siciliani and La forza del destino, intermezzos from Manon Lescaut, I Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusticana, the Bacchanale from Samson et Delila and the winsome Meditation from Thaïs (lovely solo from concertmaster Laura Hamilton).

Daughter Dora, possibly to be provocative, said she enjoyed their pieces most in the concert.

Of course, Jonas was there too, in excellent voice, providing clear evidence of why he has emerged as the leading tenor of our day – voice bright with a baritonal tinge, together with an unusually total command to the Italian and French styles, as well as his native Austro-German.

The audience bayed its approval, the standing ovation lasting some twenty-five minutes and interrupted by four gratefully received encores, the final one rendered in German, then English – ‘You are my heart’s delight’.

We had tickets for this take-out-a-mortgage event courtesy of our two New Best Friends in Sydney, to whom grateful thanks.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Peace and tranquillity in Singapore

In Singapore with Sophie and Dora, we visit the Armenian Church. It was the first Christian church to be built in Singapore, in 1835, the architect Irishman George Coleman.

I love it dearly and have visited it most times I’ve been in the city over a thirty-plus year period. Even in the prevailing high temperature and humidity, it remains a haven of peace and tranquillity.

Yesterday we visited the Asian Civilisations Museum, and explored an exhibition of early colonial life, but I saw no mention there of the extraordinary contribution of the local Armenian community to the growth and development of life in Singapore.
Raffles Hotel and The Straits Times are just two of their surviving legacies.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Pictures of the mind

It’s not just the ubiquitous selfie. People nowadays take photographs – what we used to call ‘snaps’ – anywhere and everywhere, ceaselessly.

I don’t do this at all. It’s just one more way in which I’ve become more disconnected from contemporary culture.

It reminds me of my first visit, some three decades ago, to the extraordinary Grand Palace in Bangkok. I hitched on to a tour group, mostly Americans, who were snapping away happily while their tour guide talked the talk.

A woman in the group came up to me with puzzling eyes: ‘You’re not taking pictures. Would you like to borrow my other camera?’

‘Thanks for the offer, but I’m fine,’ I responded. 

Clearly unconvinced, she retreated, and it was not until towards the end of the tour that she came back to me: ‘I think I get it,’ she said. ‘Pictures of the mind.’

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

We will remember them...

On Sunday, the day before the centenary of the start of the First World War, the vicar of our local parish church in King’s Sutton, Father Roger Bellamy, orchestrated a special remembrance event a mix of words and music.

He asked me to read three of the poems – two by Wilfred Owen, ‘From My Diary, July 1914’ and the wonderful ‘Strange Meeting’, and a third by Laurence Binyon, the one that has this as its fourth verse:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

The fact that these words have been repeated thousands of times around the world does nothing to reduce their simplicity and their power.
Our village lost twenty-two men in that conflict and on Monday the church bell tolled 'at the going down of the sun' for each of them.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Birmingham vs Paris: the bottom line

My colleague David Walker had been working in both Birmingham and Paris. He spends a lot of his life at airports.
‘Paris is so elegant,’ he told me, ‘but the people – so rude.’
‘How about Birmingham?’ I asked him.
‘Well, it’s completely the opposite,’ he said. ‘The Brummies so warm and friendly. A delight. But the place itself – nothing to write home about.’
‘Here’s an idea,’ I proposed: ‘What if we were to switch the populations over?’
‘Oh, God no. Those Brummies in Paris? They’d immediately start double-glazing everything and building conservatory extensions.’

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Rupert Everett – one of our greatest actors

To the newly-renovated Chichester Festival Theatre for the re-opening production – Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus.

It was dominated by the bewitching Rupert Everett as Salieri. He’s on-stage almost continuously throughout the play – a really major role. Among much else to admire, the instant changes from old man to middle-aged Salieri (and back) were brilliantly handled, not only in costume and wig, but also vocally.

His performance had me wondering why Everett, by now one of our greatest actors, should have put himself about in his career in so many lesser roles? Perhaps most extreme amongst these was his uncredited cameo appearance as Christopher Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love, the movie. Really, it might well have been him to pick up the Academy Award won by Judie Dench, so powerful was his presence in the moments he had on screen.

Maybe now we’ll get to see him in the great roles he’s so fully equipped to play?

Monday, 28 July 2014

Scotland in Britain?

Alastair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) in the previous disastrous Labour government in Britain and currently leader of the NO campaign in the forthcoming referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country, has delivered himself of the mind-boggling judgement that, if the YESes win, Scotland would no longer be part of Britain.

Did nobody tell him, say at school, that Great Britain is an island, and that Scotland is and always will be part of that geographic entity? Just one more bonkers scare tactic aimed at encouraging Scots to vote NO.  And one more in a long line of these that are bound to back-fire.

My whole career in advertising I noticed that apparently intelligent people, aiming to sell their product, accurately shoot themselves in the foot.
But the leaders in this NO campaign take the biscuit thus far. By far.


Friday, 25 July 2014

Bellowing on mobile phones

My former colleague Deborah Mills writes on Facebook:

Mortified to hear English person after English person bellowing down their mobile phones and realising I do exactly the same.

Travelling as I do frequently from my village in the bush to London by train, it’s become the norm, not the exception.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be so.

Several years ago, I sat opposite a middle-aged gent, who appeared to be talking on his mobile continuously – but without a sound emanating from him.

I asked him how he achieved this state of grace. ‘Well, firstly I speak very quietly,’ he responded, ‘but then I also cup my hands around the phone and my mouth.’

‘Where did you learn this?’ I enquired.

‘I’m a DJ,’ was his explanation - a friend and follower of the great Whispering Bob Harris, it turned out.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Cool is the word

Interesting article* by David Skinner about how ‘cool’ became one of the main words in the counterculture signifying approval. It started out earlier than I’d imagined – in the 1930s – gaining traction in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly in those days associated with jazz, but swiftly broadening both its meaning and its usage.

The question not addressed by the writer is why, among a whole slew of slang words from that era – hip, hep, groovy, square and so on – it should remain such a doughty survivor over half a century later. Most of those other ones are now uncool and can only be used with at least a hint of irony.

Any ideas?

*David Skinner, ‘How did cool become such a big deal?’, Humanities,  

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Idle Hands Blues

We came together again, 50 years after the start, falling quickly into the roles and relationships we had had together all those years before. The Idle Hands.

Lunch at Bibendum in South Kensington.

A bloke came up to us towards to end of the meal asking who we were. If he was disappointed that we weren’t some starry band from the 1960s, he hid it well. A lone groupie.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Endymion’s composers of choice

In the time that I was chairman of Endymion Ensemble, we put on a lengthy series of ‘Composer Choice’ concerts at the South Bank Centre in London. The groundrules for the composers were:

1.      Choose anything you like in the programme provided that it involves a chamber ensemble. (This generally made the concerts more expensive to mount than usual, involving a wide mix of players.)

2.      Be prepared to go up on stage and introduce your choices.

Over the years we had Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, Hans Werner Henze, Judith Weir (just now appointed Master of the Queen’s Music, succeeding Peter Maxwell Davies), Oliver Knussen, Marc Anthony Turnage, Jonathan Dove, Alexander Goehr, George Benjamin, John Woolrich, Colin Matthews, Gavin Bryars, John Tavener, Thomas Ades, Howard Skempton, John Casken and others.

Most of the concerts were fascinating, but the most memorable introduction was from Birtwistle, who shuffled up on stage and mumbled: ‘I’ve been asked to tell you why I chose these pieces, but I’m buggered if I can remember.’

Monday, 14 July 2014

Paradigms, tropes and memes

In the nineties we seemed to have paradigms, particularly shifts in them…

Then in the noughties it became necessary for all papers and lectures to include tropes

Now we seem to be awash with memes

Each of these, in turn, can provide a handy label (and convenient bucket) serving to convey a cloak of academic respectability, but at the same time frequently reducing the need for any real thinking.  

Friday, 11 July 2014

Dealing with Macbeth

A friend, feeling under threat from a direct-report colleague, asked me how King Duncan might have dealt with the situation more effectively, rather than be murdered by Macbeth. Of course, it is a universal question as well as a personal one.

I made seven suggestions:

1.       Study Machiavelli, who focused particularly in The Prince on the retention of power: ‘The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.

2.       Bring about major strategic disagreement.

3.       Move Macbeth to another country.

4.       Appoint a Prince over Macbeth.

5.       Accuse Macbeth of treason and lock him up.  

6.       Abdicate the throne (who needs that kind of exposure anyway?)

7.       Murder Macbeth (before he murders Duncan).

And, finally, lamenting that the great Russian poet Pushkin died young, Clive James recently proposed: ‘If you are a poet, do not get into a duel with someone who is a better shot than you are.’