Category Archives: Creativity

The ties that no longer bind

Rummaging through some stuff the other day, looking for something else, I came across a photograph of myself, taken in 1950 at the first school I ever went to.

Nothing unusual in that, of course. We’re always finding things we didn’t expect when we’re looking for something else.

No. What struck me about the image was that, even at the tender age of nine, I was wearing a tie.

A couple of days later, a friend of mine emailed some pictures he’d turned out while he was rummaging through some of his own stuff.

They were of him and me, and me on my own, and dated back to the early nineteen-fifties. Once again, I was struck by the fact that we were both wearing ties.

What was even more intriguing was that, in the short time it had taken me to graduate from primary school to grammar school, I’d figured out how to look sharp.

I’d even learned how to tie my tie in a Windsor knot!

A dandified stylist

In those days, the Windsor knot was de rigueur for dandies.

And, boy, did I fancy myself as a dandy! I even turned my droopy shirt collars inwards and upwards, to mimic the shape of the sharp, cut-away versions worn by society’s fashionable elite.

All this fancy fiddling came to an end when, at the tender age of thirteen, I went to a pre-sea training school and spent the next three years dressed as a small but nimble able seaman in Her Majesty’s navy.

No ties in that uniform, sadly, but plenty of opportunities for razor-sharp trouser creases, fancy-dan cap-ribbon bows and jaunty-angled cap wearing to keep me happy.

It was much the same when I joined the Merchant Navy.

The only ties that offered much joy were the black bows required for dress uniform. So I quickly learned how to tie my own. There’s class!

In the mid-1960s, I left the Merchant Navy and went to work in the City where, if I thought about it at all, I imagine I’d expected everyone to be dressed the same. And probably in drab.

Not a bit of it. To my great surprise, I discovered an entirely new set of uniforms.

I soon learned to recognise old school and regimental ties, and to distinguish between a discount broker and a stock broker. The former wore a silk top hat, the latter often wore a bowler.

But most intriguing – even exciting – was the joy of personal ties. I encountered striped ones, spotted ones, tartan ones, psychedelic ones and plain ones in slim, wide and even kippered versions.

Good grief, I even bought some Liberty fabric and made some of my own!

I was in tie heaven.

The advent of the trademark

When I left my job in the City and finally found my way into advertising, I soon discovered yet more liberties to take with ties.

I took to wearing bows bearing patterns.

I’d haunt the halls of Harrods at sale time, scouring their displays for ever more outré offerings.

I drew the line at the county set’s dogs and horses, looking instead for ideas born of original thinking.

Eager as I was for examples of creativity, I have to admit some of the patterns didn’t bear much thinking about!

Nevertheless, bows – the ones you have to tie yourself – had become my trademark. And I loved them.

I could even be seen sporting one as I cycled to work.

A passing identity

In the late 1980s, when I left my job as Creative Director of a somewhat sadly and eventually badly managed advertising agency and started working as a freelance writer, I was still wearing bow ties.

Perhaps, in a changing world, I was clinging to the last vestiges of my working identity.

Maybe I was simply still trying to be different.

All I know now is that, when I look around at today’s world, it saddens me to see so few men wearing ties.

And even fewer wearing bows.

I shouldn’t carp for, these days, I seldom wear one myself.

But, when I do, I feel – not trussed or buttoned up as some might think – simply more complete.

Like anyone else wearing any kind of uniform, I feel more composed, more grown-up, more responsible. Even, dare I suggest it, more authoritative.

All of which raises an interesting question for me: does the demise of the tie, and the shedding of so many uniforms we used to respect – doctors’ white coats, teachers’ black gowns, bus drivers’ peaked caps – signify some kind of diminution of societal responsibility?

Are we, in becoming less formal in our dress, becoming less formalised as a society?

As we loosen the knots around our necks, are we casting off the ties that used to bind us together in coherent, organised groups?

Or is it – as has been so often said of late – that society is becoming increasingly divided along its old class lines and – in the choice of wearing or discarding ties – we’re seeing a resurgence of the split between the old boy brigade, who still wear ties and cling to uniform habits, and their counterparts, the hoi polli who, the brigade might say, know no better than to tear about tieless?

A knotty problem

Of course, there’s nothing sinister in being seen tieless. It doesn’t mark a man out as a bad hat.

But it does worry me when I see male journalists on television, standing in some august setting, reporting on a serious subject in an open-necked shirt that doesn’t fit very well.

They seem to lack authority.

I’m not suggesting reporters should be made to wear evening dress – which used to be the case for newsreaders when television was young – but I do think it would be better if they were dis-encouraged from looking as if they’ve just got up from a deck-chair on Brighton beach and wandered into shot.

Perhaps the answer is quite simple.

Those who like ties, or have to wear them, should exercise their choice or play by the rules. Those who don’t shouldn’t or needn’t.

So long as I can wear one when I feel like it, I won’t get into a knot about it!

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What happens after work?

Years ago, when I last worked full-time as a copywriter in an advertising agency, what happened after work was simple.

I either went for a drink in a pub with a work-mate or two, or I went home.

In 1989, when I left the agency world to go freelance, the framework of my life changed.

I no longer got on my bike and cycled the five miles from Earls Court to Fleet Street, did a day’s work (and a little drinking) and cycled home.

I started working at home.

Change on every front

The first thing I noticed was that I had nowhere to ride my bike to.

Pedalling up and down the corridor in my flat seemed a pretty fruitless exercise. Given the confines, there was no way I could rack up ten miles a day.

The second thing I noticed was the way my work changed.

Instead of being asked to beaver away on projects for clients brought into the agency by the account handlers, I had to find some work myself.

For a while – and to my surprise – I felt like a man set free.

It was almost liberating to discover I no longer had to do what someone else had elected I should do, but could choose my own projects.

I felt a bit like a man released from prison who could decide what to have for lunch instead of having to eat what was put in front of him.

Of course, I soon discovered there’s no such thing as a free lunch!

Nevertheless, as the years went by, I did find my freelance diet was frequently more nourishing than any dish I’d been expected to sup from at the agency’s table.

Aside from anything else, I started working as a part-time photographer for Chelsea Football Club.

I was even stationed pitch-side when the club won the FA Cup for the first time in 26 years and the English league title for the first time in 50 years.

They weren’t just lunch breaks. They were cigar days.

More recently, as the economic conditions have faltered and the demand for copywriting skills like mine has diminished, I’ve found myself at the fag-end of my working life.

And I’ve discovered it’s a curious place to be.

On the one hand, I believe I still have all the skills I used to have.

On the other, I have to recognise that I may not be quite so adept at deploying them. What used to take a little while now sometimes takes a little while longer.

I think it’s what they call “slowing down”.

As a result, like so many other people my age, I’m having to find new things to do after work; new ways of staying connected with the warp and weft of daily life that will preserve the fabric of my own being as a working man.

This – as many will know – isn’t easy.

An idiotic suggestion

It certainly isn’t as easy as suggested by David Willetts, Britain’s Minister of State for Universities and Science, who recently floated the idea that people over the age of 60 should return to college to re-train for the world of work.

As so many others have said: the man’s an idiot.

First off, he doesn’t seem to have taken into account the cost of college courses in the UK.

They’re not cheap. And especially not cheap if you’re on a fixed income, with no prospect of it increasing.

Second, he seems to think the world of work is a place where there’s an endless supply of interesting jobs for people who – by the time they’ve finished whatever course they might have chosen – will probably be 65 or thereabouts.

He’s like a wide-eyed child who thinks the tuck shop will be forever full of sweets.

In truth, with Britain’s high streets struggling to survive the worst economic downturn in living memory, almost every tuck shop in the land is fearful for its very existence.

The bitter pill is, the jobs don’t exist.

Third, he seems to have based his thinking on what he’s described as getting retrained and upskilled.

If, by this, he’s referring to readying oneself for the world of computers and twenty-first century technologies, he’s possibly even more idiotic than I thought.

How can anyone over the age of 60 – no matter what they may have learned about computers and modern communications platforms – compete with young people who’ve been playing with keyboards and mice since they could crawl towards a screen?

It’s simply not possible.

Another approach needed

Nevertheless, for all his lunacy, Willetts is in tune with a real need.

Many of the older members of our society – and there are more and more of us as the years slip by – do need to feel as if we’re still able to make a contribution.

And some of us, for economic reasons, still have to work. For money.

But re-education is not necessarily the answer.

Perhaps a better solution would be to abandon the notion of retirement; to develop a collective mind-set that pays no heed to age only to ability; that allows anyone to work for as long as they want – whether it be until they’re 45 or until the day they slip off the dish.

With a fresh approach in this new employment utopia, the question of what happens after work need never arise.

Instead, work would be a continuum defined only by desire.

Do you want to work or not?

Of course, many will say that such a society simply encourages the feckless.

Is there anything wrong with that? Wouldn’t it be better if the feckless were allowed to feck their way through life without any guilt?

And what of those who want to work, perhaps throughout their lives?

Surely it would be for the best if they could do that, knowing that the feckless didn’t want their work, their jobs or their livelihoods?

In this fanciful new world there’d be no insecurity, only the certainty that those who enjoy work could have their fill of it and those who prefer to do nothing could revel in the barren emptiness of their alternative.

There would be no question marks over work and – by extension – none over what happens after it.

I guess we’d all just go to the pub for a drink.

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What keeps the spin doctors spinning?

Watching the final episodes of series two of Borgen, the Danish political drama that’s been a hit for BBC4, it occurred to me to wonder why so many fictional spin doctors are – in some way or another – crippled.

The idea wasn’t prompted by Kaspar Juul’s appearance on crutches due to damaged tendons.

True, his arrival was part of a beautifully played scene that showed us just enough of Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg’s character to set us up for what followed: her struggle to reconcile her public ambition with her family’s very private needs.

What struck me was the way in which – like Madmen’s Don Draper – Kasper Juul is not just physically injured, but emotionally flawed. Even quite horribly damaged.

Don’s false premise

Don Draper – as Madmen fans will know – assumed another man’s identity and, using his own charm and persuasive guile, managed to get a job as an advertising copywriter.

Since then, as the creator of numerous imaginative ad campaigns, he has – in the spirit of the conventional times his life is set in – been the inventive perpetrator of artful expressions of the contented consumerist life.

Heavens to Betsy, as one of his contemporaries might’ve said, he even married a model and thus completed his own (now fractured) version of the perfect story!

Eventually, as his fictional career progressed and he became Creative Director of, and Partner in, his own advertising agency, Draper came so close to resembling the man he’d contrived to be that he found it hard to answer questions about who he really was.

For me, he began to look like a man whose easy ability to dream up artificial constructs of daily life was born of the artificiality of his own life.

Indeed, just as an Englishman speaks English with ease from birth, Draper can – almost as easily – think up deceptions as soon as he starts work.

Kasper’s chaos

Kasper Juul, Nyborg’s terrifying spin doctor, has a different back-story to deal with.

As the victim of child abuse – and carrying the memory of that and his savage attempt to end it by trying kill his own father – it seems as if he’s constantly trying to impose his own draconian sense of order on the chaotic political world he works in.

He’s also trying to do the same thing in his private life.

It’s as if, by controlling everything and everyone around him, he can convince himself that he’s been in charge of his life since birth.

Of course, he’ll never achieve that.

Like Draper’s seductive illusions, Juul’s angry self-loathing is a powerful engine that not only drives him but also gives him the desire to turn almost everything into something it isn’t.

To – quite literally – spin his world on its head.

It seems to me that both these fictional characters are aiming for the same thing: a world that exists in their imagination that can’t be replicated in life.

The dramatic ideal

Perhaps it’s this tension that makes both Borgen’s Juul and Madmen’s Draper so compelling as characters.

We want them both to achieve the happiness they seek, but we know that neither of them are capable of reaching that ideal.

They’re both too flawed to do that, yet we will them on, knowing they’re doomed to failure.

What’s fascinating about all this is the way in which the writers of both series have spun both spin doctors’ stories, giving them both troubled backgrounds that they’re trying to overcome.

The origins of insight

What’s even more intriguing is to speculate on where the writers found their inspiration.

Do they believe that all spin doctors – men like Kasper Juul and Don Draper – are essentially flawed and that their fictitious characters are simply reflections of real life?

Or is it the case that, in order to see the light inside life’s darkest situations, all of us have to experience life’s bleak and evil side beforehand?

Truly, as you can see, it’s set my head spinning.

Which is, after all, the mark of either a good drama or a talented (spin) doctor!

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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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