Sunday, 30 June 2013

The greatest novel you have never read

Encouraged by Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times, who flagged up the American novelist John Williams’s Stoner, I have devoured it in the past two days. Appleyard tells us that it is “the greatest novel you have never read”, making out a compelling case for it.

First published in 1965, Stoner sank almost without trace before being exhumed in recent years, garnering both critical acclaim and substantial sales. Set in the American mid-West, it tells the story of an unremarkable academic, a professor of English literature. Beautifully structured and written, it is understated, yet deeply moving.

Unfortunately, Appleyard goes on to pronounce: “Stoner, in short, is unmarketable – always, in my view, a good sign.” Well, clearly, this is not so. If it were, the book would still be unknown to all but a few. All one can say with some certainty is that it was inadequately marketed at birth.

It’s quite common for British critics to take this sort of line. It’s so patronising – as though failure to sell is in some mysterious way a marker of excellence.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Focusing on the trivial

Pace Professor Parkinson, there are occasions when it’s really useful to focus on the trivial.

My largest client at Saatchi’s, Rowntree, could so easily destroy new work – strategic or campaigns – by re-discussing the fundamental pillars of the thinking behind it. In truth, they were not very good with new ideas.

So the tactic I evolved for dealing with this was to ask their considered opinion on some trivial, inconsequential aspect. This could easily be spun out to occupy the majority of the meeting.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

What insights the esteemed Professor Parkinson had. A couple of years after his brilliant formulation that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion", he followed up with his less well-known “Law of Triviality”. This states that:

Organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

How true that is. If an important strategic discussion can be side-tracked into what Parkinson described as “bikeshedding”, it will: he envisions a meeting where there are two items on the agenda – the commissioning of a nuclear reactor and the building of a new bikeshed. Of course the majority of the time always goes to the bikeshed.

In summary, Parkinson postulated that “the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sums involved.”

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Little Sweep in Bristol

To St George’s in Bristol – my favourite music venue in Britain for Benjamin Britten’s The Little Sweep. In a superb production, full of strong performances, was the debut at ten of my grand-daughter Isobel.

The Little Sweep was created as the final part of Britten’s entertainment for young people, Let’s Make an Opera! He wrote it in 1949, just four years after the première of his breakthrough opera, Peter Grimes. And, although it’s written for children, there is no sense that it is dumbed down for them. This is real Britten.

At St George’s, the excellent musical director Mark Lawrence started proceedings by coaching the whole audience in singing the four “audience songs”.

Altogether a magical evening.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Doing nothing (and doing it well)

At Saatchi’s our very intelligent and articulate Schweppes client, Keith Holloway, became notorious for wrecking newly-shot TV commercials. At the first viewing he would get stuck into the supposed inadequacies of the script, the edit, the performances, the music. Whatever was there. All rather demoralising for our terrific team.

And I came to realise that he’d done this before with previous agencies.

So my strategy for dealing with the problem became three pronged: first to tell him that he’d raised some important issues for us to consider; second to go away and do nothing; and third, at the next meeting, to show him exactly the same stuff that he’d seen previously, prefaced by: “Take a look at this, Keith. I think you’ll find it interesting.”

“Oh, that’s so much better…” would be the invariable response.

Job done.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Walking the dog

I’m a regular walker these days, most days that is, and usually on country footpaths. I absolutely love it. Each week brings new sights, sounds and smells. At the moment we are in peak season for buttercups and cow parsley.

I do tend to shy away from paths where I meet aggressive dogs. Over time that rather narrows my options.

Last week, returning to the village from an hour in driving rain, I was charged at by a snarling beast, grey, with a distinctly wolfish look. He banged into me, snarling and slavering, but without getting purchase on my person. I was probably saved by the thick, shiny raincoat I was wearing.

“He’s only playing,” announced his owner as he ambled past. That’s what they all say. If we were a gun-owning society, he might have an ex-dog by now. Playing, indeed.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013


So lovely and so brief. I was afraid, going away for a few days, that I might miss the peonies, but here they are – radiant. For a moment.

I look forward every year to their appearance in our garden.

The French artist, Jacques-Emile Blanche, painted peonies a few times. These delicious “Piviones ivoires” of 1919 were given by him to his friend, the Australian portrait photographer, H Walter Barnett. He in turn sold the work to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

I wonder: is it ever on display?

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Old friends in Chicago

What pleasure to walk into the Art Institute of Chicago after such a long gap and meet so many old friends. I only had some forty minutes there, so I concentrated on their fabulous collection of impressionists and post-impressionists the  many wonderful Monets among them, together with the stunning “Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Seurat.

It really is one of my favourite art museums in the world.

But the great surprise, new to me, was a case of small bronzes, tucked away it seems, grotesque busts by the French nineteenth century graphic satirist, Honoré Daumier. Politicians, writers, artists, friends. They are all there, seemingly caught at their most vulnerable, complacent, energetic, sleepy, self-important and so on.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Letters and research

It’s a curious thing that in academic research so much store is placed on letters. For studying the departed, they are seen as prime primary source material.

In a review of the recently-published letters of Kurt Vonnegut, Keith Miller puts his finger on one of the main problems with this approach. “We don’t write to those we see every day,” writes Miller. “Anthologies such as these are documents of absence, plaster casts of empty rooms – involuted autobiographies.” Mere palimpsests of lives.

That’s why the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson written in Samoa in the last years of his life are so important. They are at the very heart of his relationships with friends old and new.

But, for most, better material surely comes from interviews and personal acquaintance with surviving friends and relatives. The problem is that these were often woven into biographic writing in an era when footnotes naming dates, places etc were rare.

So, for example, as a consequence, in her biography of the British-Australian artist, Charles Conder, Professor Ann Galbally virtually ignores the revelations contained in earlier work by John Rothenstein, whose father was one of Conder’s closest friends.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Sodium Chloride – Friend or Foe?

Walking the Saltway last evening – it runs in the gap between Banbury and the neighbouring village of Bodicote – I thought about the crucial role that salt has played in our society.

From pre-historic times salt has been a vital part of life. To preserve food. As currency (the word “salary” comes from the same Latin root). Essential to life itself.

It could only be panned in certain places in Britain and was distributed throughout the country via the “Salt Ways”. Nobody seems to know quite how old they are.

Our local one starts to the south-west of Birmingham at Droitwich (famous for its salt pans) and runs through Stratford-upon-Avon to Banbury. Where it goes after that, I’ve yet to discover. To Buckingham? To Oxford?

How surprised would our ancestors have been to be told nowadays that it’s killing us – high sodium intake being closely linked to high blood pressure, and therefore to heart disease. At least that’s what Lewis Dahl of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the USA established in the 1970s. Of course, recently Dahl’s findings have been disputed.

So Friend or Foe?