Last year, I took part in a joint event between the writers’ collective 26 and the Letter Exchange, which represents typographers, calligraphers and letter cutters.
It was to celebrate 26’s tenth anniversary. The idea was to couple a member of 26 with a member of the Letter Exchange in order to collaborate on a piece that would be exhibited at the Free Word Centre in London in a birthday celebration.
There was a gathering at a pub in Clerkenwell, where a large dictionary was centre stage. Each pair of collaborators had to place a knife anywhere between the pages; wherever the knifepoint landed, that word became the brief for the work. There were 26 collaborators.
This was unusual for me because, ten years earlier, I was involved with the celebration of 26’s very first birthday, then wearing my designer’s hat. Ten years on, I was coming at it from the writer’s prospective. My collaborator was the wonderfully creative letter cutter Mark Firth. The word that our knife had pointed to was ‘fraction’.
We met up to talk about ideas, emailed, talked further, exchanged more emails and then jettisoned all the ideas. One morning while lying in bed anticipating the imminent sound of my bedside alarm clock bursting into life, I had an idea. It was based on the notion of a man whose day was regimented within a very rigid structure. This is what I wrote…
The alarm sounded at 7.30 a.m. Dressed and bleary eyed, he descended the stairs, scooped two tablespoons of strength four Colombian coffee into the cafetière, glanced down at yesterday’s unfinished crossword – 6 down, 8 letters – Any number of equal parts. – Hmmm?
He set his stopwatch to zero, slipped on his size 8.5 Nike Air trainers, opened the front door, checked the porch barometer (which indicated a crisp -3°C) and, with a quick intake of breath, sprinted forward into the morning chill.
On reaching no. 14, with its distinctive olive green door, he triggered the stopwatch. From No. 14 back to his front door was exactly 2 miles and over the course of the run his heart rate would settle at around 160 beats per minute.
When running he liked to focus on particular things: door colours of red, indigo, chocolate and apple green; and the many cast-iron covers that populated the pavement on the journey. They also kept him alert to the frequent deposits of dog crap – he had never understood how people could scrape up fresh squelchy turds by a hand enclosed in a thin, plastic bag. The fact that it could split made him feel distinctly queasy. Glancing down again, he noticed he was wearing odd socks. This filled him with dread; he hated getting things wrong.
Rounding the bend, his familiar yellow front door came into view – 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3. He hit the front gate two seconds before the stopwatch sounded. Perfect.
Back in the kitchen. The kettle reached the optimum 92°C and he poured the steaming contents into the cafetière, and then buttered two slices of perfectly browned toast and cut them in half. An audible ping denoted the climax of his two four-minute eggs. With the radio tuned to 94.5 FM, he sat down for breakfast.
Looking down again at the unfinished crossword, he picked up the pencil and filled in the remaining squares: F-R-A-C-T-I-O-N.
And this was Mark’s brilliant visual response to my story, beautifully cut into Welsh slate…
A rare event for me, outside of this blog. I’ll be talking at the Typographic Circle evening event on 27 March, at JWT about my work and six years on, life without CDT. For more info click here.
The year: 1976
This is what was happening:
We seem to think that we are currently having extraordinary weather. However, back in 1976, it was devastating. An earthquake killed 655,000 people in Tangshan, China. A tidal wave killed 5,000 in the Philippines. Hurricane Belle hit the US East Coast. And an earthquake in Guatemala and Honduras killed 22,000.
Britain 1976, the worst drought in recorded history.
Here in the UK, the first recorded drought hit due to a prolonged heat wave, which caused many flash forest fires.
What else was going on?
The first commercial flights of Concord started.
James Callaghan became the new Prime Minister.
Fidel Castro became President of Cuba.
Steve Jobs formed Apple with Steve Wozniak.
This was to be a year of fantastic opportunity. It started with me walking into The Plough pub in Museum Street, London. Through a wispy haze of blue cigarette smoke sat the slender figure of Alan Aldridge, who was adding to the lingering smoke. He had contacted me to talk about the possibility of collaborating on a book together. He’d long moved on from his Penguin and Beatles period. At the time, he was having considerable success with his The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast book and was working on an animated film version. He had also designed the album cover for Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and was developing the idea for an animated version of that too, so he was a very busy bee – or should I say butterfly.
The book Alan had in mind was to celebrate the work of Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist. It was to be called The One Who Writes the Words for Elton John andwould contain all of Taupin’s lyrics. These would be accompanied by individual illustrations to visually express each song. Alan had a list of people from the pop world that he was going to commission, from John Lennon to Ronnie Wood. It was to be my task to commission from the world of illustration and photography, as well as design and art direct the book – no pressure there. In the event, my collaboration with Alan was minimal: I only saw him twice before he disappeared to America. And so, I was left to my own devices. The book sold out before publication and was reprinted immediately. Here is a little sampling…
Cover illustration by Alan Aldridge and Harry Willock
Illustration by Alun Hood
Illustation by Ken Carroll
Illustration by Donna Brown
Photograph by Lorenz Zatecky
Illustrated by Tony Meeuwissen
Illustrated by Peter Bentley
Illustrated by Brian Grimwood
Illustrated by Keith Bowen
Illustrated by David Pelham
Illustrated by Bill Sanderson
Illustrated by Dan Fern
Illustrated by Pauline Ellison
Back on the top floor of my Fontana studio in Mayfair, wearing my children’s book list art director’s hat, I was given the task of producing an urgent film ‘tie-in’ series for The Rescuers by Margery Sharp. The problem was that there were no stills, only some rather bad black and white reference shots. What to do?
Mick Brownfield in the 70's
Enter the extremely dashing Mick Brownfield, who had established himself as a wonderfully ‘method’ style of illustrator. He could step into the shoes of a comic strip artist, a 1940s pulp fiction illustrator or, as for my requirement, a traditional cell animator.
He was absolutely believable in all those different shoes.
Meanwhile I was wearing lots of hats too.
Photographer Robert Golden (know as Golden Light) produced many cinematic covers for me.
Illustrator Justin Todd was a mavel and I gave him masses of work
Me as illustrator for the Fontana religious list which I loved and gave my all
This is me during the long hot summer of 1976, relaxing in a field with my first daughter, Polly. We were on location shooting covers for a children’s pony series with photographer Denis Waugh, who took this shot. We were staying with the Armada Books Children’s Editor Marion Dickens, granddaughter of the author Monica Dickens. And the intriguing dark young woman that I mentioned in the last 50 + 50 post was now working as Marion’s assistant. Her name was Jessica and she was helping out on the shoot. We had become friends by this time and spent a lot of time together, especially in a delightful little French bar in Shepherd Market, Mayfair, called L’Artiste Muscle (40 years on, it’s still there). We’d sit at rather wobbly old sewing machine tables, which I recall furnished the place, and have a bottle of Beaujolais, warm soft French bread and some delicious blue cheese. We would talk and talk. It was always interesting and delightful. I have always loved the company of women, as there is rarely talk of sport, which seems to dominate most male conversations and is something that I am totally allergic to.
Alan Parker's first feature film, Bugsy Malone
Marion Dickens had mentioned that we should go and see a rough cut of a film that she was considering publishing as a film ‘tie in’. It was called Bugsy Malone and was the first feature film both written and directed by Alan Parker. We met in a Soho screening theatre, where I was introduced to the film’s producer, David Puttnam. They were both full of enthusiasm. Parker was riding high as a commercials director, having won everything there was to win and now with his sights on Hollywood. Puttnam had also had success with two David Essex films, That’ll Be the Day and Stardust, and was about to set up his own production company (Enigma). He later asked me if I would be interested in designing its identity. John Gorham was great friends with Parker and virtually designed everything for him, so Parker was out of bounds for me. But Puttnam had mentioned that he was going to produce a film with Ridley Scott. So, I kept closely in touch.
Each year there was a major sales conference for the whole of Collins Publishers up at the main print and bindery at Bishopbriggs in Glasgow. We all had to troop up there and my first experience was quite a shock, mainly because there was a traditional evening meal presided over by the tall figure of Sir William Collins in full benefactor mode, complete with a silver-trayed procession of haggises preceded by a fully kilted piper. But the really bizarre part was that the dinner was for male staff only. All of the female members had to fend for themselves. I refused to attend in the following years, preferring to spend my time with the women, which was far better than a whisky-sodden room of men.
With my studio being at the very top of the building, I was tucked away from prying eyes. And so, Fridays became party time. I would persuade the odd job man Len to supply us with a box of wine from the very well-stocked Collins’ cellar. The various editors, Kristy McLeod, Caroline Caughey, Marion Dickens and Jessica Datta, would bring in food and we would wail away the afternoons and early evenings eating, drinking and listening to music, which got louder with the increasing consumption of alcohol. I don’t know how I got away with it for so long, but I did and it was great fun. On the work front, I was delighted to have five pieces of work in the 1976 D&AD Annual, which encouraged me no end. I was so competitive in those days.
Ken Carroll still featured regularly at the studio and we would go to the very first Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, which had just opened in Crown Passage just off Pall Mall. Founder Bob Payton would often be there to chat to customers, who had to bring their own drinks, as there was still no alcohol licence. Towards the end of the year, Tad and Bill (my two original assistants) left for pastures new, and two new lively characters were to join. And David Puttnam phoned to ask if I’d like to design the titles for a new film he was producing. It was called The Duellists and was to be directed by Ridley Scott. More about that in the next 50 + 50 post.
My album for the year:
My Films for 1976:
All the President's Men directed by Alan J. Pakula.
Network written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet
Taxi Driver directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader
The Missouri Breaks directed by Arthur Penn. Not a great film but I'd see anything with Brando in it.
Related Post: 50+50 part 13
My friend, and sometimes collaborator, Michael Wolff and I have been on this planet for 150 years. During that time, we have clocked up five marriages and thirteen children between us.
So the topic of love, soul mates and lifelong relationships has taken up a lot of conversation over the years. And we have both come to the same conclusion. Michael has beautifully summed it up here in this heartfelt piece of prose.
I’ve never cared for the expression “Falling in love” It’s always sounded to me like some sort of careless accident. Falling’s never a good idea anyway, it nearly always results in pain.
Choosing is an entirely another matter. And even choice can hurt because choosing in matters of love can be flawed and disappointing.
The problem is often a misconception of attraction. I’ve been thinking about attraction and of course I only really understand it from my own point of view. This, I think is how attraction works. It’s an internalised system of matching. From a very early age, probably around 3 or 4, many individuals start cataloguing what they find attractive in others and what repels them. I certainly did.
For example if a little boy of four is smacked around the chops by a curly headed blonde, then that may be it for curly headed blondes forever.
Little by little a catalogue of stereotypical images of attractive people are stored in the brain, they come from pre-erotic and erotic glimpses of people or from films, dreams, books, magazines and a variety of images.
Then as relative maturity arrives we start searching for ‘the one’. We look hopefully and tirelessly at almost everyone we see until we settle for a look-a-like, someone who appears to resemble a stereotype already in our cerebral catalogue.
Instantly we click and fuse the image of the one we’ve just noticed into the one we already have in mind and our hormones and a whole variety of chemicals and electrical impulses start to get busy.
That way we control these images so that who we’ve picked matches what already attracts us and then, through some magical focussing and subconscious superimposition, we fall in love with the perfect image we’ve personified as the person we think we see.
We even impose the attributes we’ve already fantasised about and wished on the images in our catalogue of attractive people and imagine who we now see as the same person.
Then after a chemical flurry of wonderful good times together and happy sexual joy, gradually, and sometimes very gradually, whatever relationship we believe we’re in flexes to reveal the adaptations we’ve had to make until the real person we’ve chosen turns up, and we find their resemblance to what we had in mind is minimal.
How disappointing that can be.
Thank God really meeting people, finding oneself ‘becoming’ in love, and loving a person for who they are is an entirely different, wondrous and delightful cup of very rare tea.
I’ve found that love is really a job. It’s serious undertaking that can bring happiness beyond any dreams or wishes.
The job: to give your partner a greater and richer experience of themselves than they can achieve alone, and then, even harder, to be able to receive the same enriched sense of yourself from them.
I think this is the most beautiful and useful description of a relationship...
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.”
Designers by their very nature are highly tuned visual creatures.
But sometimes the tunes that travel through the ears can be just as creatively enriching as anything absorbed through the retina..
In his 5th letter to young Indian designers my good friend Michael Wolff shares the music that has made an important contribution to his life, creative or otherwise.
Are we beginning to know one another? I hope so, even though no one’s been in touch with me by mail or email yet. This is my fifth letter to you. Maybe, because I’m in London, I seem remote to you, so, in this letter, I’ll open my heart through the medium of music. Two great art forms are particularly close to designing, One is cooking and the other is music. Both are visceral and intensely creative. So with this longer than usual letter, I want to tell you my life story through music.
I call it ‘a mockery of age’.
Since I was six, music has always been an intimate companion.
I’d hear my parents saying words like ‘foxtrot and quickstep’ and placing their precious shiny black records on their felt covered
gramophone turntable. Then they’d carefully lower a strangely shaped chromium plated arm that played a variety of scratchy and hissing music all through my childhood. There was always an argument about when to change the needle. And then, another argument, noisily in Russian, about who’d lost the tiny tin with dozens of perfect new Columbia steel needles, nestling in crisp paper inside. I lived with either the sound of argument or the sound of music. This first piece
of music always restored the household calm. For me, Victor Sylvester’s elegant dance music created anticipation of glamour and of romance to come.
Music became my refuge. I used it to emphasize sadness and joy.
By the age of eight, hymns – sad tunes like “there is a green hill far away”, were my ‘under the bedclothes’ mantras to cry with Songs by George Formby, were my inner music for laughter and happiness.
During World War 2, thousands of songs, from BBC radio signature tunes to military marches, filled my head. The most enduring was Lilly Marlene, sung by Marlene Dietrich. She was my introduction to erotic fantasy:
A jump of ten years through Phil Harris, Benny Goodman, Spike Jonze, Edith Piaf and literally weeks of French cinema and passionate Francophilia – which still burns steadily with me, especially in the songs of Edith Piaff and Rina Ketty.
In those days, I spent hundreds of nights with Dixieland, New Orleans jazz and blues, dancing in London’s jazz clubs, instead of persevering with Architecture at the AA – Sidney Bechet, an American from New Orleans who lived in Paris, was my next music hero. France, America, movies, and music had crept indelibly into my world.
Adult life ran alongside my own kind of life, and my musical taste became so eclectic it gradually become impossible to explain it.
Music still continues to bring solace, exhilaration, sadness and joy.
Singers like Ruth Etting and Bessie Smith, and big band swing, held me in their thrall. The singer that reflected all of this and epitomised the huge and central role of humour in my life was the joyful and exuberant Fats Domino – complete with his 200 suits!
Time to turn up the volume, especially with Fats.
Les Paul and Mary Ford
Les Paul’s guitar playing, his multi-track arrangements with Mary Ford and Count Basie’s subtle piano interweaving with his juicy and immaculate big band, were both special to me as I started to appreciate how ‘the big picture’ and infinite detail are inextricable expressions of each other and this duo continues to influence my work. These two pieces are permanently imbedded
in the ‘easy to reach’ part of my music memory.
By now, some rock’n’roll groups were far outstripping the creativity of the design world in which I worked. The Beatles in particular, light years more dazzling and important to me than any designers working in my lifetime – except possibly Le Corbusier.
I was amazed by The Who’s opera Tommy – amazed. Not just by the subject and the story and the wonderful observation in the poetry of their lyrics, but by the orchestral power of the music. I stood next to a battery of speakers throughout a deafening live performance at the Round House and was transported to a place I can’t even begin to describe. The ‘acid’ did no harm and volume is essential. Listen
At this time I was living a family life and leading the creativity in Wolff Olins. Those who worked with me were people of extraordinary talent. Each one of them took me beyond where I was capable of going alone. I can’t remember why, but I spent many nights doing long drives of hundreds of miles listening to hours and hours and hours of American rock’n’roll on the eight track “Slot Stereo” we’d designed.
I feel such empathy with this tremendous music. Bands like Credence Clearwater and The Band had permanent space in my mind. This music is sublime It’s almost running permanently through my blood stream today. I love it!
Some songs, where the lyrics and the music are as one – like flowers and their leaves – are like a perfect thirst quenching drink on a balmy summer day. This Paul McCartney song, Blackbird, always comes effortlessly into my mind. For me, it’s the sound of absolute equanimity.
It ripples down my spine.
At an altogether deeper level, Mozart’s music has reached me more intimately than anyone else’s. This miraculous aria from the Marriage of Figaro has always, and will always, stop all thinking and hold me enthralled. It’s nothing to do with the opera itself or the story, but simply the purest singing of a great soprano and Mozart.
Nothing else to say. Just close your eyes and listen.
My work life is now turbulent – from leading a company of many colleagues, many who became my greatest friends, to ‘leading’ a one man band – then back to a company of colleagues and then back to singular work again, and then again.
A roller coaster life with the great joys of an ever extending family to keep me sane and living with love. America became an unexpected fact of my life. My family extended again to embrace more ‘growing up children’ from Kansaa, more best friends and more American music, both early country music and the music of the time. The Carter Family always promps a tear.
This autobiographical account ‘of music now stops being any attempt at personal history, because all the music I’ve selected from now on, is really just music that I’ve loved for many years. A bit like my clothes, some have been around for decades. They come and go and then I start wearing them again. Bob Dylan’s poetic lyrics always connect with me. I sometimes feel, when I remember them, that at certain times they literally were my life. I seem, from time to time to have lived through some unaccountable episodes. Among them extended times at Isle of Wight festivals and ‘trips’ into adventures I don’t even remember.
Most of Dylan’s music resonates naturally with some of those extraordinary interludes. Especially long, long songs like Jack of Hearts and this song were he sings about a little rooster with something on his mind.
You’ll need to buy Blood on the tracks to hear the original.
I like this cover version - but she’s not Dylan. Meet me in the morning is Dylan so no worries. Turn up the volume.
In 1986 I met my third wife in Kansas City. She was my Kansas City Baby, living there with her son, her daughter and a three legged cat – Lucy. Her son Jordan and I often danced to this George Harrison song.
It wasn’t an easy time for him and this song always made us want to dance and feel warm and happy! Sometimes, in my life, music has played a defining role in the start of a relationship.
At any point in my life there are certain pieces of music that keep recurring. I know them so well, forget about them completely, and then they come back, bringing a wave of recognition and delight. Billie Holliday has always been there in that way for me. The musicians who play with her support her with such obvious affection, it reminds me of my good fortune in working with so many friends, and how often they’ve supported me and brought their strengths to compensate my weaknesses There’s always a mixture of tragic sadness and a love of love in Billie Holiday’s music. Listen to these lyrics. They’re quick, short and tell the whole story. It’s glorious music.
Sometimes, although my family was from St Petersburg, and all my life has been an English one so far, songs like this one by Maria Muldaur make me feel as if my roots are from somewhere like Tennessee in the American South. I feel a kind of longing for it. Strange – but it’s such sweet music.
At one time I was flying to Kansas City to see my Kansas City Baby Marty every week. One of my daughters and two grand children live there and my very, very close friends the Barsotti’s live there too. Charlie Barsotti is my favourite New Yorker cartoonist and very special friend. His home is where I recharge my sense of humour, and where I relax most deeply. I delight in the biggest and the smallest of American stores and unbeatable BBQ. (The Nebraska furniture store is over a million square feet. USA!) Chuck Renner’s store in Kansas City is where I buy my cowboy boots.
Dear God, this is all amazing music, although I realize I haven’t brought my love of the Pink Floyd into this letter. I always think of them as designers and of course brilliant masters of song. Here’s a track which ridicules and dismisses so much about education. Although what we teach kids is improving in many countries, watch this TED talk by Ken Robinson many years ago. Few governments take any notice.
All I can say that for me, thank God school is over for ever.
As far as Gods are concerned, Charley Parker is one of mine. I hated ‘bop’ until I loved it. It happened suddenly - all over in an hour. It was Dizzy Gillespie’s fault. At any point in the last forty years, whenever I need to loosen up and find a feeling of fluidity, it’s either the miracle of cranial osteopathy or listening to any Charlie Parker. This short track in particular.
It wasn’t all that long ago that I realized how valuable and wonderful tears were. I was always uncomfortable with mine, and not too happy around anyone else’s. This timeless duet is at least as miraculous as two summer skylarks soaring and singing together.
It never fails to bring locked away tears to my eyes. It’s always been music that moves me more than any other. I hope I can take it with me when I go.
This is another track to close your eyes to, keep calm and fly with these glorious birds.
This was completely irresistible the first time I heard it. It remains irresistible. For me this is the most extreme music. I don’t just hear it, I eat and drink and dance it. It reaches all of me, and it connects my very first experience of what music did to me when I first heard it, to my experience of music today. For me it makes a mockery of age.
It needs volume. Warn your neighbors first and then let go.
Before the last song in this story, so far, are three songs that not only reach my heart but are closer to my mind and the truth inside me than any other songs I’ve ever heard. Two of them are by the genius John Lennon and the third by Eric Clapton.
See what you think and feel when you listen.
This last song will probably mystify those of my friends who aren’t English. It’s a kind of cultural poem set to music. The music behind this ‘auction of gloom’ is timeless – timeless in the sense of stretching across decades.
There’ve always been meetings or events, which I know I’ll hate, and to which I have had to go; particularly some English meetings and events. For me this brilliant song by Spike Milligan – another great genius – both epitomizes and ridicules these stifling functions. Hopefully never again is what I always say to myself, and then, there I am – in another dreadful function with dangerously catered food, in a huge nowhere room that I never want to see again.
In the end, all there is to do is to laugh and laugh, and eat and love and appreciate friends and all the miracles in life – find something good in everything, avoid causing harm, do your best to bring what you can to the world, and love again and laugh again, and laugh and laugh and laugh.
In my next letter I might tell you the same story. This time how through many things and places I’ve seen that have inspired me all through my life so far that have made me the kind of designer I am.
Some are things to love and appreciate and some so terrible that they have to change and I am compelled to be part of that change.
The point of sharing myself with you in this way is to encourage you to celebrate yourselves so that you can flourish by being fully who you are, through how you live your life and how you create your own work.
This is me in 1946 sitting on the beach at Broadstairs in Kent
I was born during the last years of WW2 and, as a young boy growing up in post-war Britain, things were pretty bleak. The scares of the Blitz in London were very evident for well over two decades and there was a drabness to daily life, often exacerbated by what was called ‘pea soupers’ – extreme smogs brought about by excessive coal burning. But, as is often the way, with a negative comes a positive. The smog would transform the streets of London into exotic expressionist paintings.
Smog, a very regular event in the 1950s
For as long as I can remember, I have had a highly tuned visual awareness, which was developed in no uncertain terms by weekly visits to the cinema with my mother. I would lose myself in the Technicolor wonders whose projected shafts of light would dance through the curling cigarette smoke. This cinematic experience took me away from the greyness of post-war Britain to a wonderful dreamland.
Terence Davies's wonderful The Long Day Closes (1992) an evocation of 1950's Britain echoing my own childhood but without the beatings.
Reading was something I struggled with and it was not until my adult years that I realised that I was, and still am, dyslexic. But it was not a condition recognised back in the 1950s. So I was labelled as being a slow learner. But I actually loved books, but not to read: to look at. The local reference library was a haven for me. It was warm on the long winter days and there was a comforting peace about the place. I would sit quietly in the corner and make my way through the many large, heavily illustrated encyclopaedias, and I particularly loved the National Geographic Magazines, which were in plentiful supply on the shelves.
I would flick through those pages and be transported to faraway places, and between the articles were wonderful advertisements that gave an insight into an intensely colourful and exciting world 3,500 miles away across the Atlantic: the US, the place of plenty. They even had colour television in the 1950s and cars that looked like they were from outer space in vivid colours under their endless blue skies – here in rain-swept Britain, the majority of cars were black. For a ten-year-old, the US was so seductive. I fantasised about living there and spent a lot of time copying the advertisements onto large sheets of paper to decorate my bedroom wall.
Being visually distracted has always given me enormous delight and I am constantly aware of my surroundings, constantly on the lookout for the unexpected. And my trusty camera or iPhone help me record those moments.
It is surprising what is in front of you, if you can be bothered to look.
Last year, I did a little personal investigation on how people were interacting with each other in this age of Twitter, Facebook and all other social media, and my findings were depressing.
This is 21st century conversation. Isolated from ones surroundings.
Aboveis a group of snaps that I took just walking around my local neighbourhood. As you can see, no one was physically communicating but doing it at a distance, even though they often had friends directly in front of them.
The seduction of the digital world has removed people from the here and now. When you are next out and about, turn your phone off and look around you. I guarantee you’ll be shocked at the number of people completely cut off from their surroundings, and in the process they miss so much. And others are so engrossed in texting that they will walk straight out onto a busy road, oblivious to the danger. But put your mobiles away and look around you and you’ll catch moments like this…
Just a small selection of things I have snapped when I am out and about. You just have to look.
These days, we are stuck in front our computers, almost motionless, for long periods of the day, so there is even more reason to get out and make a point of taking in the surroundings. There are always new things to see, which in turn set the creative cogs spinning. A stroll for me is recharging my brain. So why people, especially young creatives, don’t take advantage of the free show on offer, I’ll never know.
The great, late Alan Fletcher used to stalk his local area for discarded debris for use in his many collages: had he never bothered, we would be the poorer for it.
The title for this piece “Embrace distraction” has been a guiding principle for years. If I am trying to crack a tough creative problem, I’ll stop what I’m doing to look for something else, anything and everything. You never know where it might take you. So, next time you are stuck, go take a walk.
This post was first published in Kyoorius magazine.
During the coming weeks BBC Radio 4 will broadcast James Joyce’s collected short stories Dubliners in 20 episodes, read by the actor Stephen Rea. For me The Dead has one of the most beautiful finales of any story.
In 1987 the great American director John Huston adapted The Dead for the screen. It was to be his last film. He directed most of it from a wheelchair, as he needed an oxygen tank to breathe during the last few months of his life. It is a gem of a film made with real love and understanding of the Irish. Sadly, Huston died 4 months before the film was released.
This is the last, beautifully touching scene from Huston’s film, sensitively played by the late Irish actor Donal McCann.
David Bowie: the man who started it all.
The Bay City Rollers
Prince charming in the shape of Adam Ant
Garry no longer Glitters.
Boy George in his sartorial heyday.
There was a time when it was only performers in the pop world who made deeply embarrassing fashion mistakes. I’m thinking here of the ’70s and ’80s. They were quickly followed by the disc jockeys, who, bathing in the reflective glory of their rock and roll masters, started to appear on television looking ridiculous…
The least said about this despicable man the better.
But most other individuals involved in television presenting tended to be kitted out on the lower slopes of sartorial sensationalism…
In his ‘everyone’s favourite uncle’ outfit, John Betjeman was perfectly pitched for his television appearances in the ’60s and ’70s.
When John Betjeman made his famous British Transport Filmseries, he dressed in his own everyday attire, often topped off with a rather shabby looking mackintosh or trilby hat. But it didn’t distract from his brilliance.
Originally Michael Portillo presented the series in a fairly conservative mode.
Contrast that with the more recent Michael Portillo series Great British Railway Journeys. We see him wandering around clutching his precious Bradshaw railway guide close to his chest like a Gideon’s bible. When the series started, he was dress in a relatively low-key way. However, halfway through the series, something strange started to happen. Brightly coloured shirts became the order of the day.
As the series developed into Great Continental Railway Journeys, Portillo started to wear rather bizarre colour combinations of jackets, shirts, trousers and socks, so much so that I became more transfixed with his dress code than with the journeys and scenes he was describing.
One wonders who advises these presenters on matters of styling. In the case of Portillo, someone is surly sending him up. I can imagine it – Producer: “Michael, I think the lilac jacket and lime-green shirt will work really well.” Out of earshot, directed to the cameraman: “He fell for it again, Charlie.”
Portillo in his true clours
It amuses me how this clamouring to become a ‘character’ through fashion is increasing – mostly in middle-aged men – across the board and is no longer the bastion of the young.
The original presenters of the Antiques Roadshow were rather sober in their dress code, like the red-faced, rotund figure of the late Arthur Negus, whose point of difference was his down-to-earth Berkshire accent. But, over the years, the presenters on this programme have not only got increasingly posher, looking down their noses in mild disgust at the hoarding middle classes who hope to be told that their heirlooms are worth £50,000, but have also become far more garish in their dress code.
Arthur Negus in his old tweeds.
They are now desperately attempting to ‘brand’ themselves with an array of trappings from bow ties to fake tans, from veneers and brightly coloured waistcoats to novelty spectacles: all to elevate themselves to ‘personality’ status.
The Antiques Roadshow's Paul Atterbury
Mr perma-tan David Dickinson presenter of Bargin Hunt
Here are some presenters from the past and more recent prize peacocks...
The architectural critic Ian Nairn was totally disinterested in his onscreen appearance in Nairn across Britain (1972).
Kenneth Clark allowed the world be the star rather than himself in BBC’s Civilization in 1969.
Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: he no doubt wore his outfits to detract from the dreadful interiors that he created during the run of Changing Rooms.
The former TV horse-racing pundit JohnMcCririck must take the prize for wearing the most ridiculous outfits.
The kings of the fashion world are in a league of their own. The Nazi-ranting pirate John Galliano.
And Harry Hill lookalike Karl Lagerfeld.
Long before Sarah Lund’s jumper became famous in The Killing, we had Gyles Brandreth’s monstrosities on TV-am in the ’80s.
Just one of the many horrors worn by Brandreth while on TVAM
Braces became the branding device of Ground Force’s Tommy Walsh.
Meanwhile, Tommy’s Ground Force co-presenter Charlie Dimmock had two other distinguishing presentation points that she used to great effect, cheering up many an ageing gardener.
The darling transvestite of the art establishment, Grayson Perry.
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