Category Archives: Communicating Ideas

A transatlantic adventure with a wood turner

As anyone who’s crossed it will tell you, the Atlantic is a very big ocean. I know, because I crossed and re-crossed it as a merchant seaman.

But my most recent transatlantic adventure has been quite different.

Not for me the ocean’s harsh, wet, winter winds and wild waves. Cocooned in the comfort of my own home, I’ve been travelling through time and space, trading ideas and information with a Canadian wood turner whose creative skills make maple sing.

Paul Ross and I were brought together by ’26’, a writers’ collective that numbers me amongst its many more than 26 members.

A unique marriage

Together with 25 other arts, crafts and wordsmith pairings – all given a similar job in various media – Paul and I were tasked with marrying his manipulation of maple with my ability to respond to his work with a literary construct of exactly 62 words: a sestude.

Separated as we are by three-and-a-half thousand miles, it seemed an impossible task.

But hey, we live in a technological world!

Emails flew. Questions were posed. Answers returned. Concepts were revealed and ideas were latched onto. A relationship was established.

As the days passed, Paul’s ‘Star Bound’ became my sestude. The task was completed.

Between us we had united our skills and created something utterly unique: an object made of wood and finished with thread, married to 62 carefully chosen words knitted together in exactly the right order.

A course stayed

Unlike my earlier Atlantic crossings, this has been a different kind of adventure.

At times, I thought I was losing my way. I couldn’t find my compass and – changing course too often – it seemed as if I was headed for oblivion.

But Paul’s ‘Star Bound’ was constant. I had only to return to its substance and explore its mysteries to find a way to my destination.

You can see the results of our journey, and download  a free copy of the resulting book featuring all twenty-six connections, at:

Sadly, the delightful video shot at a recent exhibition held in Picton, Ontario, has been taken down by The Wellington Times. Maybe they don’t keep things on their site for long. If so that’s a shame, because I think you would’ve enjoyed it.

I will be in Ontario for the upcoming Studio Tour; a weekend when Prince Edward County’s creative community opens its doors to the public.

It’s bound to be a lot of fun. Much more so than weathering a January force nine in the middle of the Atlantic.



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How much horror can the world cope with?

The news of the execution of photojournalist James Foley was shocking in the extreme.

To learn that someone had tweeted links to the horrific footage of his death was breathtakingly appalling.

How could anyone do that?

And how could anyone be so obsessed with being allowed to say just what they like – whenever they feel like it – that they take to the web and criticise Twitter for removing all links to these gruesome images?

Yet James Ball has done just that in the Guardian.

Claiming that Twitter – once lauded as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” – has gone too far, he berates it for making an editorial decision that’s out of line with its role as “a platform” with no curatorial powers over its users’ messages and thus its content.

What nonsense!

If no one exercises any control over what appears on Twitter, Facebook, Google or any other “free speech” platform, who knows what we could see next.

In any event, the tweeting of these grotesque images has done nothing for any sensitive being. All is has done is fuel the publicity surrounding the evil acts perpetrated by the Islamic State’s jihadists.

Which is, no doubt, what they wanted.

But is it what the rest of the world wants, or can cope with?

I don’t think so.



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Camera or canvas? Which conveys the truth?

There’s been a lot of debate over the past week or so about the amount of money spent by the British parliament on works of art.

Many of those making the most noise have complained that the reported £250,000 handed out since the 1990s – about £10,000 a year on average, unless my math is haywire – has been taxpayer’s money.

One of the points I picked up was that, so far as the politicians’ portraits are concerned, someone believed that photographs would’ve been cheaper than paintings.

I have to say I haven’t heard such a misguided view for quite a while!

Where’s the power?

Photographs might’ve cost less but, with the exception of the memorable portrait of Winston Churchill created by Karsh of Ottawa, and perhaps one of two of Margaret Thatcher, I cannot recall any that convey the truth of any politicians’ character, personality or dynamism.

Most say no more than the average corporate mugshot taken for an annual report.

Painting, on the other hand, is a much more searching medium.

Look at this portrait of Tony Blair, for example. Tony Blair PortraitPainted by Phil Hale in 2007, it shows a parliamentarian reaching the end of his time in office, possibly exhausted by the rigours of Prime Ministerial responsibility and perhaps contemplating the winding down of one career and the start of another.

But look at it more carefully. To me it shows a side of Tony Blair that no photograph could ever capture.

Yes, he could be described as contemplative. But I think it goes much deeper than that.

Blair looks like a man full of uncertainties; a man wondering about his key political decisions and executive actions, who has doubts about the rightness of some of his choices.

What this painting also reveals to me is a man who I believe for years projected the idea of his personal certainty by constantly displaying an up-beat appearance and an almost manic enthusiasm for global politics that bordered on messianic zeal.

Not for nothing did the cartoonist, Steve Bell, light upon Blair’s one “mad” eye as his most telling characteristic!

What’s the truth?

For me, the setting, the pose, the expression – indeed, the whole painting – shows a man uncertain of his truth.

Blair was, after all, a public-school-educated leader of the Labour Party, which is something of a contradiction in itself.

He claimed to be the working man’s MP, but is known to have admired Margaret Thatcher.

He believed he had the right prescription for all Britain’s ills, but provided some catastrophic medicine that, at times, made the patient suffer even greater pain.

He was loved when he came to power and loathed by the time he left office.

Ultimately, this image seems to be that of a man asking himself: “How will I be judged?”

And I have to ask: “Could any photograph capture – and convey – that so effectively?”

I have to say I doubt it.

Photography may lay claim to be the medium that never lies, but painting searches for and finds truths that might otherwise remain hidden.

Even Tony Blair might agree with that.

A postscript

Blair always pointedly refused to sit for artists while he was in office. This portrait was commissioned towards the end of his tenure. Hugo Swire, who chaired the committee that appointed Phil Hale (a Boston-born American artist who lives in London) said at the time that he chose Hale because he was impressed by his portrait of the composer, Thomas Adès, which hangs in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery. You can see more of Hale’s work at Allen Spiegel Fine Arts. Go visit!

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Remember this Obama speech

Barack Obama was a stand-out hit at Tuesday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

Even sitting here in my study in London’s Earls Court, watching events on my Mac, I could feel the warmth and affection in the Soweto crowd’s welcoming cheer.

And, when he spoke, I could hear that he returned their emotion.

He asked us to remember Nelson Mandela as “a giant of history”, and thanked the people of South Africa for “sharing Nelson Mandela with us”.

Now, I wonder, how many of us will remember Barack Obama.

A man for his time

He has, for me, been a man both for and of his time.

He made history by becoming the first African American President of the Union.

But history will record that, as President of the Union, he failed to achieve his prime ambitions.

And remember, he cannot be a third term President, so he has no third chance for a second tilt at history.

Nevertheless, if we are wise, we will remember his words today.

Especially we should remember this passage from his address at Soweto:-

“There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”

No easy answers

Obama went on to say that the questions we face today have no easy answers.

But, he said, “South Africa shows us we can change”, and that we can choose to live in a world “defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes”.

We must hope that, while Mandela’s legacy will surely be remembered, Obama’s words on this celebratory occasion will also be recalled long after he has left the White House and his people have chosen another President of their Union.

We should remember what he said. And the man who said it.

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Big it up for Elmore

Jackie Collins has two big things: big hair and big sales.

She’s also revealed that she’s a big fan of the late Elmore Leonard, who died on August 20 2013.

Writing in The Guardian she says: “I am for ever a fan”.

That, at least, is something she and I can share.

What I don’t quite agree with is her response to Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  Only three of them appeal to her: “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly”; “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things”; and “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.

Perhaps what Collins is missing is that Leonard’s rules were for him and for people who wanted to either write like him or at least write for his chosen genre.

I don’t think he was suggesting they were universal.

Interestingly, Collins makes no mention of Leonard’s earliest work as an advertising writer. Nor does she say anything about how he believed that – as a writer of fiction – he should be invisible in his work.

These two things are related.

Speaking as an advertising writer, I know how important it is to remain anonymous. If anybody’s going to be identified as the author of an ad, it should be either the client or the product, not the copywriter.

My reckoning is that Leonard carried this through his entire career.

It may not be what makes Collins, me and countless others such big fans.

But it points the way.

He was – and always will be – a big influence on anyone who wants to write originally.

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Silence is not golden

It’s almost the end of the summer now and the silly season is over.

Most of us have been on holiday, had a good time and now it’s back to work.

We have to assume it’s the same for the British Labour Party, so we ought to start hearing something from them.

But where are they? And what have they go to say?

All during the long hot days of July and the occasional downpours of August, their leader’s silence has been either worrying, irritating, maddening or all three.

In that time, the Conservative propaganda machine has hardly missed a beat, with David Cameron telling us what he thinks about almost anything and everything that passes for public concern.

But nothing has been heard from David Milliband or his team.

I believe he must speak up now and tell the British people what he thinks of the great issues of the day – the events in Egypt, the UK’s energy shortfall, our youth unemployment, the housing shortage and much else – and give us an inkling of what he and his party would do if they were to win the next election.

That may not be due until 2015, but many of us want to know his mind now.

While he may need time to fine-tune his ideas and polish his policies, we need time to decide whether or not he’s the right man for the job.

If he doesn’t do something soon, he won’t get a winner’s gold medal and his silence now will be seen for what it is: leaden.



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Do we know too much today?

It was Alexander Pope who said “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, which has since been misquoted as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

While I’m not one to quibble over the exactitude of an 18th century phrase, I do wonder what Pope, pictured below, would have made of today’s information avalanche.

In 1709, in An Essay on Criticism, Pope contended that a small amount of knowledge can lead people into thinking they’re more expert than they really are.Alexander Pope

Back in his day, he believed that knowing just a little about a subject could “intoxicate the brain”, whereas a greater depth of knowledge “largely sobers us again”.

Nowadays, with news, facts and opinion flooding the airwaves and swamping cyberspace, it’s become all too easy for most of us to harvest small amounts of information and fool ourselves into believing we have a vast silo of knowledge that lets us think we know everything we need to know about anything.

Thus, armed with a few small pellets of understanding, we let loose a fusillade of ill-informed verbiage that – more often than not – makes us look like someone drunk, not on knowledge, but on self-regard.

Nowhere is this more self-evident than in the unmediated, cacophonous worlds of Twitter and Facebook, neither of which I patronise but both of which I cannot avoid.

Abe Lincoln Looking Off to the RightClearly, Pope had a good point; one that was echoed, in part, by Abraham Lincoln, left, or – some contend – Mark Twain, one or another of whom said: “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.”

Whoever said what, all three men held fast to a shared idea: that knowledge is a precious commodity, and that it ill behoves us to treat it lightly.

Babbling like Bedlam

I’ve been drawn to this line of thinking by the sheer volume of nonsense I read in the press and see on my screen.

As a keen cyclist and ardent follower of the world’s road racing news, I was astonished by some of the bigoted, prejudiced – even hate-filled – opinion voiced in the weeks and months following Lance Armstrong’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show.

True, I added my own tuppence worth.

But I like to think that – just as I did when I sounded off following Lady Thatcher’s death – I did so after some consideration of what I know, and some thought on how best to present my points of view.

Again, as a supporter of Chelsea Football Club, I follow their progress via the press and the web and – once more – I’m sometimes aghast at what I read.

Jealousy, derision and fatuous empty-headedness once again hold sway.'Scene in Bedlam', 1735

The pictures painted in these and so many other cases are of a world that resembles Bedlam; a place teeming with desperate souls all vying to be heard; crazed people who – because they are making so much noise – will never get the eye of those whose attention they seek or the ear of others they’re trying to impress.

Knowledge is power

I’m tempted to say, at this juncture: “Can’t we all shut up?” But that would be fruitless.

The fact is, we all need knowledge to both sustain and enrich our lives. We need it to communicate with others. And, most importantly, we need it to underpin the veracity of what we say.

When we speak from a position of little knowledge we are, indeed, the empty vessels that make most noise.

When we – as we like to say – “know what we’re talking about”, we’re more likely to be believed.

As it is, living as we are through snow storms of whirling facts and howling opinion, and mind-numbing blizzards of information, we too often like to think we know what we’re talking about when, in truth, we only know as much of anything that has managed to stick to our memory banks. And that’s frequently precious little.

Clearly, the answer to my original question – “Do we know too much today?” – is both “yes” and “no”.

Yes, we know – or think we know – who should play for our national soccer team. Yes, we know the colour of Gwyneth Paltrow’s most recent party frock, the length of Kim Kardashian’s hair and who her siblings are dating this week. And yes, we’re led to believe we know what Justin Bieber was up to last night. We also know gazillions of other trivial facts and titbits of information relating to people whose lives never really touch on our own.

But we don’t know enough about the things that really matter.

We don’t, for example, know who’s really in charge of the country – of any country, come to that – who truly controls the world’s security systems, or who’s behind the forces that constantly try to disrupt the even tenor of the world as we know it, or would like it to be known.

Let’s think on’t

Perhaps the real answer to the question is: “Not enough about the right things.”

And – recognising that – perhaps we ought to think more carefully before taking to our keyboards or tablets with the aim of adding yet more to the ceaseless clamour that currently risks deafening itself, and – as a result – causes us to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to most of it.

Let us all think more carefully before opening our minds to the scrutiny of others. Let us try to avoid looking foolish.

That way, we may all get to know a little more that’s truly valuable.

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What have you got to say for yourself?

“Everything and nothing”, I replied, slightly pompously, when people asked me what I was going to blog about.

“But you can’t cover everything!”

“No. Of course not. But if I could, and if everything was possible and nothing was ruled out, I’d be left with everything. And, by the time I’d written about everything, there’d be nothing left to write about, so I’d have covered both options.”

“So where are you going to start, smarty-pants?”

Good question!

At other times, hoping to bring a little levity to my ‘What have you got to say?’ answers, I’d quip: “Anything and everything.”

“But you’d have to choose,’ came the reply.

“Of course I would. But I could choose anything or everything, or anything and everything.”

“What? You haven’t got the time!”

And that’s true.

Let’s face it. I’m not one of those people, so driven by the need to write, they turn the compilation of a shopping list into a literary exercise, or make each single item look like a work of art produced by a calligrapher.

Such people could write about anything, and would probably try to cover everything. Including their groceries. Which – if you check – you’ll see I’ve done.

“So what’s your blog going to be, then? Pulpit or confessional?”

Now that was a question I had to answer.

Was I going to preach? Was I going to mount the metaphorical steps and stand before my virtual audience, holding forth as if I were robed in the vestments of moral authority? Was I going to rail against the forces of evil and corruption?

Or was I going to get on my knees, bare my soul to the world, and offer up an unadorned litany of my sins and misdemeanours?

Years ago – so many years ago they’re beyond counting – I wrote a little piece of doggerel that goes like this:

I used to be a loudmouthed braggart

full of wind and piss,

blowing off in public on every that and this.

But since I learned that nothing’s true,

it’s all no more than cant,

I’ve simmered down a lot these days

and don’t just rave and rant.

For making all that noise won’t do,

it only fills the air.

It does no more than plastic glue

would do to wash your hair.

And now I ask myself: has anything changed?

Well, some things. I’ve got less hair and we all know much more.

Indeed, the volume of information now available to everyone makes it possible for anyone to have an opinion on something or another. Anything and everything, in fact. Which is – almost – where we came in.

I’d better get started!

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What motivates you?

I can’t deny it. This is a plagiaristic post.

Just before Christmas, Owen Bailey, a digital marketing executive at Creativepool, posted a piece on Linkedin’s Creativepool Network that asked the same question – with one difference.

Instead of simply asking “What motivates you?”, he wanted to know what motivates creative people. Not just any people, but creative people.

As you’d expect, he got a lot of answers, which generated some interesting debate.

What he didn’t get was a consensus.

Indeed, he seemed to divide opinion, with responses ranging from challenging oneself through to making people laugh or smile, creating something new, playing like a child and and playing God.

Who wants that last role, I wondered? Too much responsibility for me!

My own contribution was: “There’s always a problem to solve, always a creative solution to look for. What else does one need?” To which the trainer and mentor, James Sale, added: “Empathy?”

Good point, James.

For it seems to me that anyone who’s creative, and motivated enough to mobilise their creativity, does need some empathy with either their chosen medium, their subject or their audience, if their output is to succeed.

So, whether you’re writing, painting, acting, sculpting, composing or performing music, it must help if you like the process, sympathise with your subject and have some sort of relationship with your audience.

Which is, I guess, what motivated me to produce this post.

Unless, of course, you can think of another reason!

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How do you write to show you can write?

For people in my line of business, this can be a problem.

In an age when anybody who tweets probably believes they can write, and everybody with a keyboard thinks they’re an author, it’s sometimes very hard to know how to show people you have a skill that can seem like a gift but, more often than not, requires hard graft.

It seems especially hard when you’re trying to convince them that your skills can help them communicate better.

In my case I could, for example, talk about the amount of time I spend researching a new subject so that I can write about it with some authority. And I can hope that, by expressing this simple thought and its related benefits in a clear and engaging way, I can persuade someone to commission me.

On the other hand, I could point them in the direction of pieces I’ve recently written, or work I completed years ago. That might prove I can do it.

I could even brag about the awards I’ve won. But the trouble with that is, it’s so long ago it’s hard to remember who presented them, when and what for. And would anyone think they’re still relevant?

I could, of course, simply write something for someone – anyone – to read. But the question is what?

Suitable subject

Some months ago, when my Creative Ampersand colleagues and I were casting around for a suitable subject that might showcase our skills as writers and designers, Hester lit on the idea that all the world’s typefaces must have stories to tell, if only they could be liberated from telling other people’s tales.

As she said, they are the pack-horses of the written word, constantly conveying ideas and information from one mind to another – or even many others – so they must have something to say.

We both thought this was rather a good idea.

Between us, we drew up a random selection of twenty-six typefaces – one for each letter of the alphabet – and set about unearthing their origins and the ways in which each one has been used, before writing up what’s become our Tales of a Type.

We then asked our designer colleague, Robert Barkshire, to come up with an interesting way of displaying the individual stories.

The result – which you can see at & PROJECTS on our website at – not only shows that we can write, but also that we can do so in what we hope is an engaging, entertaining and informative way.

It solved a problem for us, in that it allowed us to demonstrate our skills, and it was a lot of fun to do.

Whether or not playing a game like ours will help you figure out how to write about how you write is, of course, another matter.

All I can say is: “I hope you have fun.”

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