Whither Grumpy?

I have decided to write a novel now that I’m living in the woods, as you do. Accordingly the blog, which has been sporadic at best for the past couple of years (albeit for different reasons), will probably not publish for the foreseeable future.

Thanks to everyone who has supported GrumpyBrit and particularly to those of you who have jumped in on the comment section. It’s been a great trip.

Until recently US Representative Peter T. King was the Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. As the New York Times has reported Mr. King was also once a fervent and vocal supporter of the IRA.

In 1982 when he was Nassau County’s comptroller, Mr. King spoke at a pro-IRA rally:

“We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry,” …

Three years later he declared,

“If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.”

Congressman King’s familial relationship to Ireland is at least a couple of generations distant (he’s the son of a New York policeman).

I was living in Birmingham, England in 1974. On November 21 of that year, twenty-one people were killed and a hundred and eighty two injured by bombs planted in two pubs in the city centre by the IRA. Most of the dead and wounded were between the ages of 17 and 25.

These attacks were unusually barbarous. Both pubs were well known to be favoured by young people. One of them was in a basement: no windows, so the blast careened back and forth, contained within the concrete cube, shredding and co-mingling all the wood, glass, flesh and bone in its path.

My employer at the time would later act as counsel for one of the alleged bombers in preliminary hearings. And yes, we received death threats for doing our bit to uphold the presumption of innocence (which as it turned out 16 years later, the Birmingham Six were found to be).

In addition to savage attacks on the population in Ulster and England, the IRA’s ‘mainland’ campaign included the bombing of the Old Bailey and Scotland Yard, the assassination of the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street, the attempted assassination of the Prime Minister, the bombing of the Houses of Parliament and the ‘execution’ of the Queen’s cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Based on the history of the past decade it is difficult to imagine how America would respond to such a sustained assault on the real and symbolic fabric of their institutions.

The IRA received considerable financial support from Americans like Peter T. King, primarily from the Irish communities of New York and Boston. My guess is that many of the contributors had never set foot in Ireland.

Confronted by the seeming contradiction between his role as the Homeland terror Tsar and his previous support for IRA terror in Britain, King’s response amounts to little more than “that terror was against Britain, but this terror is against the US. And I’m an American”. Now that’s a special relationship.

Adopting the cruel calculus of the current war on terror (and had the technology existed at the time) Congressman King and the ‘militants’ attending the 1982 rally on Long Island would surely have been suitable targets for a British drone strike. Not to mention the odd pub in the Bronx or Charlestown; collateral casualties regrettable, but sadly unavoidable.

Transposing the logic of America’s war on terror (however facetiously) to Britain’s decades long struggle with the IRA simply reinforces for me the random barbarity and ultimate futility of the former.

I abhor the violence of the IRA and all its metastatic sub-malignancies (as well as their equally malign Unionist counterparts), even though I sympathise with the republican cause in Ireland. My countrymen caused incalculable misery, suffering and death on that benighted island over the centuries. It is possible to understand the hatred without condoning the terror.

My intent is neither to compare nor diminish the horror of recent events in Boston, but rather to suggest that when it comes to terror, contradictions abound. In the right circumstances we’re all susceptible to the irrational, jingo-blind embrace of our perceptual tribe.

Or put another way, for every act of terror there is more often than not an equal and opposite perspective.

This is an edited version of the original post

Grumpy gets religion.

Giles Fraser may be England’s most media savvy vicar. He has a column in the Guardian, he’s regularly featured on the Beeb and he’s a diligent tweeter.
Dr. Fraser is the parish priest at St. Mary’s, Newington in the rough and tumble south London neighbourhood known as Elephant and Castle. He looks like he might once have been a mean rugby player.

He’s also the former Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral who resigned over the decision to forcibly remove Occupy protesters from within its precincts.

This Easter weekend Dr. Fraser has been giving an erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury a bit of salutary welly. He derides the former prelate’s obsession with homosexuality and characterises Lord Carey’s claim that he feels like a “persecuted Christian” as an insult to Christians around the world who really are hounded and terrorised; coming as it does from one who sits swaddled in ermine in the House of Lords.

Not content with preaching to a largely lefty audience of Guardianistas, he managed to get himself into the Daily Mail, simultaneously the bastion of right wing righteous indignation and up-skirt photography.

The thing about this redoubtable rev is that he does Christianity as opposed to bang on about it. He seems to subscribe to the increasingly rare idea that being a good Christian means carrying on where supposedly, more than two thousand years ago, that non-violent activist who took on a military dictatorship with his message of social justice and equality left off.

He makes the (sadly) remarkable assertion that the natural nexus of the church with politics is advocating for the poor and needy rather than worrying about who has sex with whom and whether gay people marrying will bring on the end times.

What’s really terrific about Giles Fraser is that the church he represents is not some esoteric and exclusionary club engaged in a competition to see who will and who won’t make the cut come the rapture, but an organisation that is dedicated, alongside charities, unions, NGOs and political parties, to the fight for social justice. Which one might have thought would be the default setting for a church.

Does Giles Fraser make me any less of an atheist (well agnostic really)? Not a bit of it. But he certainly makes me think of the church as a relevant and vital organisation in 2013.

Loitering in one of the scores of cafés and bars that occupy every other shop front on Rue des Abbesses, I’m suddenly very aware of the lumpish and melancholic pall of age. I’m invisible. As the silver haired gent by the window immersed in his book and distractedly forking his food, or the blue haired lady in the corner sipping white wine and absently stroking a lap dog are invisible.

A gorgeous young woman and her affable sidekick perform a swirling pas de deux, moving fluidly between the tables the bar and the kitchen, their musical bon soirs interspersed with the scrape and judder of furniture as they constantly remake the space. Somehow the flow of food, the clatter of bottle caps and clink of carafes on the marble tabletops continue uninterrupted. What they lack in obsequious ceremony, this pair more than make up with their amiable proficiency and the unselfconscious loveliness of careless youth.

On the heated patio outside other beautiful young couples sip their drinks, smoke, nibble at food and each other, some of them momentarily amused by the wisps of snow that are beginning to fall.

I’ve come to Paris to meet a friend I haven’t seen in 40 years, and as a distraction from morbid thoughts.

There must be few more delightfully distracting places than this confusion of cobbled streets and alleys and squares in the immense shadow of the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur. A chaotic admixture of sacred and profane, devotional and decadent, physical and cerebral; treats for the soul, the imagination and the viscera.

The wet black cobbles of the winding streets glisten under leftover Christmas lights slung between buildings. Eventually I find myself in Place Susanne Buisson where the lights in the trees twinkle like cheap jewellery. There are bars and bistros crowded all round the square, their heated patios filled with sippers and smokers and nibblers. I am enjoying the comfort of crowds but feel no need for company.

I’m now invisibly seated beside handsome Russian girls who smoke Marlboros avidly and flip between Russian, French and English as easily as characters in a Nabokov novel. The Russian girls’ Russian girlfriends arrive, sparking a distinctly un-Nabokovian frenzy of squeals and shrieks and kisses all round.

We had much to talk about my friend and I. A lot of life gets crammed into forty years what with lovers and friends and families, moves and migrations, careers and unfulfilled ambition, sickness and death, lurid addictions and addled fancies, passing fads and lifelong passions, tragic flaws and comic foibles (which by now are hardening inexorably into cranky eccentricity). For that one evening, time is compressed into a two-dimensional panorama of the anarchic, chaotic comedy of being.

The Russian girls tra-la tri-lingually beside me, the bustling waiters duly ignore me, a newly arrived trio move tables around, one of them nodding an almost imperceptible acknowledgement of my existence as he manoeuvres a chair between me and the table. I am as completely and utterly inconsequential to everything and everyone around me as if I was seated in a theatre, a part of the event but individually of no importance whatever.

For forty years contending has been the thing and now I’m no longer in contention. Contending for lovers, contending for the money, contending for attention, approval, admiration, applause. This realisation, too banal and predictable to be dignified as insight, is profound only in the strength of my conviction that I’ve crossed over my own fourth wall from actor to observer.

It feels like the first truly new sensation in a very long time.

Whinging about ads used to be the province of UnaBomber types back when the aggrieved party actually had to put pen to paper, discover the address of the offending company, rummage around their shack in the forest for a stamp, steal into town and post the damn thing in a mailbox (no not that kind of mailbox, a squat, doughty metal thing with… oh never mind).

Why I recall as if it was yesterday the crazed dissertation on inter-racial ‘mingling’ and miscegenation I received in response to a thoroughly innocuous TV spot which ended on a couple of Asian guys sharing a beer with a couple of Caucasian girls at Expo ’86 in Vancouver.

Advertisers by and large have always been overly sensitive to complaints about their advertisements and in the last few years the convenient, not to mention conveniently anonymous expedient of social media has rendered this epidemic.

But, there is a revealing aspect to this plague. Take Taco Bell. Here’s a company that within the comfy, collegial confines of the boardroom presumably revel in the fact that their product represents the very antithesis of healthy eating, that the customer they make their bonuses from is a hormonal adolescent male whose cognitive function during this inevitable but generally transitory life stage peregrinates from alcohol to ass and back again. Oh yes, and those for whom the life stage is anything but transitory.

Occasionally companies of this ilk take things a bit too far and governments must legislate them into removing some of the more noxious poisons from their recipe. Nonetheless, their product is legal and wholly fit for its, albeit dubious purpose. It’s shit. The vast majority of its consumers will grow out of this shit. But another cohort of adolescent arseholes is champing at the bit to fill their puke and pizza encrusted trainers.

For a company that devotes so much energy to those with an abundance of testosterone, there seems to be a serious deficit of same at Taco Bell.

Bowing to the demands of a group at the polar extreme of your product’s reason for being suggests that either everyone in the marketing department should be looking for a new job, or that Taco Bell needs to seriously re-think its product.

Recently I had the misfortune to be in need of a train in middle England on the very day the snow came to middle England.

As each successive time on the departures board rearranged itself into the word CANCELED, a collective muted groan, accentuated by some with a beetled brow or pursed lips, was the extent of the would-be passengers’ reaction to their collective fate. We’re English. We deal.

I on the other hand was seething. I could handle the enervating, damp chill, the numbness in my extremities, I could forgive the foul brew masquerading as coffee in the station’s caff, but I wasn’t prepared for the inane stream of drivel issuing from the PA system.

Monotone female voice: “We apologise for the cancellation of the [12.17] service to [Hereford]. We are very sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.” Followed without pause even for an automated breath by turgidly identical apologies for “…the [12.25] service to [Birmingham New Street]…”, “…the [12.42] service to [Soli-fucking-hull]…”, “…the [12.47] service to [London bastarding Paddington]…”, and on and on this awful, whinging litany continued until – she began again at the beginning. And just when you thought she was finished, a male voice seamlessly interposed itself:

“Due to [severe weather conditions] we are experiencing disruptions to our passenger services. We sincerely apologise to passengers for any inconvenience this may cause.”

And back and forth this doleful duet harped.

At least you knew where you stood when back in the day some surly NUR* or ASLEF** shop steward would have barked down the tannoy to the effect that “this station will be closin’ forfwiv due to the unsafe workin’ conditions for the membership”. Followed rapidly by the roaring to life of assorted Hillmans, Vauxhalls and Austin Minis in the employee car park.

Apologies: meaningless, automatic, automated, automaton apologies. Apologies for telephone queues, out of stocks, for the horse in the hamburger, for plane delays, train delays and rain delays, apologies for shagging the intern, for letting my family down, for letting the fans down, for taking my trousers down, for fucking the choir boys, for bombing the wedding feast.

And who’s to blame? Earnest, humourless, lifeless, dreary-arsed, bloody consultants that’s who. No doubt there’s an entire industry of cock up consultants, confessional specialists, excuse executives, and grovel gurus devoted to counselling companies and public figures on how to deal with fuck ups. Devoid of empathy, as inhumane as the automated solutions they foist, they work to rule every bit as earnestly as those union shop stewards did back in the 1970s.

The sanguine response of my fellow passengers suggests that they’ve become inured to the inanity. Which is the really sad bit. Yet another time honoured aid to social cohesion stripped of all meaning by the vapid exigencies of some specious school of brand management.

*NUR: National Union of Railwaymen
**ASLEF: Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen

Hey Bell Canada, can we talk?

Because there’s nothing like ‘cause marketing’ to reveal the true extent of that unique form of intellectual paralysis, the bureaucratic rigor mortis generally only found in ‘very large corporations’. Like Bell.

Take this for example.

It feels as if it’s been wrung from one of those ghastly brainstorming sessions where the Corporate Social Responsibility gang brings in all the short straw losers from each of the company’s panoply of marketing ‘partners’ (’fraid there’s no budget for this guys, but we’ll bring donuts) for a head banging session. From which torturous process will be birthed this year’s beneficiary of Bell’s philanthropic bounty and the accompanying theme. You know how those go.

‘Kay guys, it’s that time of year. Gonna be tough to beat last year’s “Stump up for Para Olympians” program. But that’s why we’re paid the mediocre bucks right? And remember – there are no bad ideas.

How ‘bout mental health – it’s pretty crazy right now?

That’s such a downer. Do we really want depressives in our franchise? I mean ewww…

Tammy-y-y? Are you crying?

Bozo and Bimbo smiling like their haemorrhoids are acting up, the cool, cold, lifeless design, the too cute by half “Let’s Talk” rubric, the 5¢ a tweet/LD call/text/FB share, the toolkit(?). Sorry but it all seems about as sincere as an automated apology from one of your impenetrable voice mail systems.

Your motives may well be genuinely altruistic in “…supporting mental health”. But the clammy hands of nervous marketing people are all too much in evidence, the nagging demands to show the ROI and ‘measurable impacts’ all too transparent. You might as well put a special button right on the site: Live sales updates Watch our sales go mental on mental health awareness day. Now that would be transparent.

In almost certain contradistinction to the internal corporate Kool Aid, your being a lugubrious corporate behemoth, a telco, a former monopoly/current member of a none too popular oligopolistic cabal, your appearing to be anti-competitive whenever the opportunity arises, your providing one of the highest priced services of its kind anywhere in the world, all this and more means that the world beyond your elevator doors is predisposed to think the worst of you. To impugn your motives. To look for the catch in the mousetype (let’s face it you’re the undisputed masters in that department). What can I say? It’s a cynical old world.

I’m sure you’re all lovely people, but as a corporate beast it’s hard to imagine a drop of warm blood runs through those icy commercial veins. When it comes to passion, or compassion, or indeed to anything beyond creating the next wheeze to lock your customers to lifetime contracts – in fact when it comes to being human – it’s probably a good idea to outsource the whole damn thing.

Here’s a master class on how a brand can make hay with social media.

Chap makes a joke on the brand’s facebook page. The joke is very well received garnering some 84,000 likes.

The brand (a “fem hy” thingummy) runs with the joke and ratchets up the comedy, almost to the point of self-satire (including the rather oddly mixed simile “…the blood coursing from our uteri like a crimson landslide”). The brand’s video attracts 175,000 views on YouTube within days of posting.

No, this is not proof that Facebook is, after all, an effective advertising medium. Neither is it evidence that traditional advertising is sickening, moribund or dead. It’s not a campaign (although we can hope it might inform the tone of the next one). However, it is a useful illustration of how social media can be a vehicle for an opportunistic foray when particular circumstances suggest themselves to vigilant, agile and creative marketing people (although the title of Brand Controller is a bit chilling, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable working with one of those).

Best of all it vividly demonstrates that when brands stop taking themselves so seriously they can actually be quite engaging. By the way, for the jargon-obsessed, this is a real life example of being ‘engaging’. Or as we used to say, entertaining. Oh, and it’s not content. It’s a video.

In his eloquently rollicking and viscerally entertaining autobiography (the man makes 5-string open tuning as riveting as the “Jackal” designing his assassin’s rifle) Keith Richards spends much of the early chapters detailing the sheer dedication and hard work that went into becoming the Rolling Stones. Years of it in fact. Living in shitholes, eschewing all the usual distractions of adolescence (like chicks and food) in favour of endless hours studying, practicing, understanding. Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed – any of the great bluesmen whose records they could lay their hands on. Because the blues was where it all began.

They did what every artist whose work has stood the test of time has done down through the ages. They soaked up all they could from the greats that came before them. And then they did their thing.

Taking a break from Keef I started watching Bob Hoffman’s interview with Jason Falls. It seemed like a natural segue at the time. And it struck me, as I was nodding along with Bob, that I’ve never heard of a digital nouvelle vague prattler whose (what many might think should be intuitive) first instinct was to learn everything there is to be learned from the past 100 years of communicating with consumers and building brands. It would seem a self-evident foundation upon which to layer their technological geekery and wizardry. And, hey digi-pal, seriously, “it’s a 2-way conversation” is simply not a plausible obviation of every piece of learning from the past century.

David Abbott said that he loved to observe young creative teams breaking all the “rules” out of sheer youthful cussedness. After all it’s the natural order of things, it’s how we progress and get better. But as he cautioned, “you can’t break the rules until you know the rules.”

Richards waxes ecstatic about epiphanic moments when he finally figured out how say, a Chuck Berry lick defied every musical convention but worked a whole new kind of musical magic. Berry couldn’t have reinvented and Keith wouldn’t have recognised the reinvention, if they hadn’t done the hard work up front.

I’ll assume that the digital demagogues are either supremely arrogant or operate under the insane misconception that technology has fundamentally altered human cognition. Otherwise it’s just rank stupidity.

Perhaps it’s time for clients to realise that sometimes they’re paying far too much attention to the roadies rabbitting on about how the lightshow works, and missing the reason the roadies and the light show are there in the first place.

I got a good deal on a watch the other day, a Seiko. The watch shop was going out of business. I like Seiko, I read somewhere that they’re the only watch manufacturer that makes every component of the watch themselves.

I also have a Rolex. I paid almost $1,000 for a timepiece that’s reliably inaccurate, must be wound daily, and has to be laboriously scrolled through each 24 hours to reset the date. Yep, I bought the cheapest Rolex in the store. Nevertheless, it fulfilled an ambition I’d held since my teens. The Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels wore a Rolex Oyster.

Kids don’t seem to wear watches these days and likely couldn’t imagine shelling out a grand for one (that’s two fucking iPads ferchrissake). Earth’s diurnal course is now perpetually and reliably demarcated for them on big screens, little screens, in-between screens, TV screens, the cooker, the microwave, the PVR, the car dashboard and on billboards and buildings. Which means that the knobs at Seiko and Rolex are hopefully thinking long and hard about that really big, really simple, really difficult question posed back in the early 1960s by the godfather of marketing, Theodore Levitt: “What business are we actually in?”

The time business? The tiny fiddly parts business? The calibration business? The jewelery business? The things-that-go-on-your-wrist business? The fashion business? The things that go tick business? The heirloom business?

Companies that understand marketing are those that continuously devote sufficient intellect and creativity to understanding what it is they really sell to their customers, beyond the constraints of their current product line and the next quarter’s analysts’ call.

Instead of trying to engage, get in a relationship, share an experience, converse, or otherwise generally wank about with their customers they expend intellectual capital figuring out what actual value they and their factory (or their man in China) have to offer them (and still make a profit)?

Because then things like capital investment priorities, the (dread) mission-vision-values twaddle if you must, channel strategies, new product development, ads, media and PR strategies, even the sodding social media strategy tend to fall into place.

That’s marketing. Not dead, not moribund, not even wounded. Just misunderstood.

Nike likely wouldn’t have been interested had Rolex suggested teaming up on their runner-y, gadget-y thingummyjigs. But if they had been they might have created future heirlooms for aged millennials to bequeath to their millennialets.

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