Ripeness is all

I’ve been reading Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native for a walk I’m leading. The strange thing about Hardy is that you seem to feel the need to offer an excuse as to why you’re reading him, or maybe that’s just me. But anyway –

Clym Yeobright (the ‘Native’) has recently returned to Egdon Heath, where he was born, and has just told some of the local inhabitants, denizens of the heath as he was, that he plans to remain close to the heath and open a school. Whilst they say nothing, they are clearly taken aback; Why would someone who had escaped the heath and become a diamond-seller in Paris choose to return to this poor, backwater of a place – a place that everyone else dreams of leaving?

Thorncombe-3-web

The answer is that Clym has become an idealist.

Yeobright loved his kind. He had a conviction that the want of most men was knowledge of a sort which brings wisdom rather than affluence.

However, because of his studious time in Paris, he was far in advance of his erstwhile fellow inhabitants of the heath – ‘the rural world was not ripe for him.’

‘A man should be only partially before his time: to be completely in the vanguard in aspirations is fatal to fame [ … ] Successful propagandists have succeeded because the doctrine they bring into form is that which their listeners have for some time felt without being able to shape.’

Doesn’t this just perfectly describe Steve Jobs, by the way, and in particular the iPad? Just enough ahead of the game, and able to fulfil aspirations that people were only dimly aware that they had.

But, unlike Jobs – at least in his speeches – Hardy is scornful of idealism:

‘Was Yeobright’s mind well-proportioned? No. A well-proportioned mind is one which shows no particular bias … It would never would have allowed Yeobright to do such a ridiculous thing as throw up his business [he was a diamond seller in Paris] to benefit his fellow-creatures.’

Yeobright dares to dream – and is punished for it.

By this time in his life Hardy had endured scorn and rejection himself – in people’s low expectations of the kind of job he might aspire to, and in the way his (now) in-laws had looked down upon him as the suitor of their daughter. Despite winning the woman and succeeding in the career he had set his hopes on – to be a writer – he allowed these early slights to colour his whole outlook.

Incidentally, not wholly unlike Picasso who, as John Richardson recounts in his biography of the artist, never forgave the lack of interest from dealers during his early years in Paris. But I digress.

Hardy damns Clym’s idealism, and throughout his novels those who aspire to escape the position into which they are born tend to pay a heavy price. Just think of Jude. And Clym.

I wonder if the reason Hardy feels so unfashionable right now is that in contradiction to today’s (welcome) mantra of ‘Yes you can!,’ Hardy seems intent on saying ‘No, you can’t’ and insisting on the insignificance of the individual. Despite the fact that he made it all the way to the top.

He is buried in Westminster Abbey – except for his heart. That’s back home in Dorset, in Stinsford churchyard, close to his birthplace. And the heath.

How to Knock Off a Bag

Why are expensive leather bags so… expensive?

Watch this brilliant and witty video by Dave Munson of Saddleback Leather Co. and you will know.

In the video he shows pirates how to knock off his bags, and demonstrates that the only way to make his products cheaper is to make them worse. Use lower quality leather, lower quality thread, more seams etc.

By the end of the video you know just how good his bags are – and you want one.

Of course I want a bag with straps consisting of two long continuous pieces of high quality leather, not scraps spliced together. I want a bag which uses highest quality 316 steel for the buckles, not nickel plated plastic; that’s stitched together not with cheap cotton thread but with the finest and strongest continuous filament polyester thread. And, most especially, I want a bag that I know has been made by artisans, not child labour.

Specifically I want a front pocket briefcase. Simply gorgeous. You can see it at saddlebackleather.com.

I bet you’ll want one too.

 

“I said No.5 because it’s the truth!’

As the year and the holiday season draw to a close, it’s time to ask – who won the Christmas ad battle?

They had an unfair advantage, but the Chanel No. 5 Marilyn Monroe ad, making use of what is unquestionably the best celebrity endorsement ever (and which didn’t cost them a penny), surely knocked the competition out of the park.

The 30-second ad, in gorgeous black and white interspersed with a bit of period saturated colour, recalls the heyday of movie glamour and the Mad Men era.

The voiceover uses a recently discovered audio recording from 1960 in which Marilyn recalls her famous interview with Life Magazine, in 1952, in which she revealed her love for the most casually named (but most beautifully packaged) perfume:

‘Marilyn, what do you wear to bed? So I said I only wear Chanel No.5’

Of such stuff the dreams of brands are made. (With apologies to Prospero).

With her perfect pout, sensuous curves and blonde curls, the ad also reminds us why Marilyn remains a potent sex symbol and icon of glamour.

With all good wishes for 2014.

Happy-New-Year

Jack Kerouac’s essentials for prose

Jack Kerouac (right) and Neal Cassady (photo by Carolyn Cassady)
Jack Kerouac (right) and Neal Cassady (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

I just picked up Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones and was struck by the four essentials that she quotes from Jack Kerouac’s ‘Essentials for Prose,’:

1. Accept loss forever

2. Be submissive to everything, open, listening

3. No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language, and knowledge

4. Be in love with your life

And of these the first and fourth run deepest, not just for writing but for life: Accept loss forever. Hitting the hard, flinty truth of what’s necessary to keep focused on today and tomorrow, and leaving yesterday behind. And perhaps a necessary condition for number 4.

There are others, including ‘Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in the mind’ and ‘Keep track of every day, the date emblazoned in yr morning.’ But I also like:

Like Proust, be an old teahead of time.

And coincidentally… in my inbox the latest from Jamie Jauncey’s excellent blog at A Few Kind Words – I love that title. This week he is talking about writing, mentioning in passing Stephen King whose ‘On Writing’ I have also just been reading, and sets out the ‘Flowers Paradigm’ of Betty Sue Flowers (who is emeritus professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, amongst much else):

Every writer brings four people to the writing table: a madman, an architect, a carpenter and a judge. The madman is the unfettered creative genius, the source of raw energy and ideas. The architect is the visionary and planner who gives shape to the building born of the madman’s ideas. The carpenter hammers away bringing form to the architect’s plans. The judge waits till everyone else has finished, then goes round with a magnifying glass shaking his or her head. The trick for the writer, of course, is to understand that he or she needs them all at different stages of the process.

Written largely in a single burst of creative energy in April 1951, few books match On The Road for sheer exhilaration – the exhilaration of being alive, of being on the journey. I remember the first time I read it and how I was completely enthralled, intoxicated even, devouring page after page late into the night until I reached the end. Then starting all over again.

On The Road first editionThe extraordinary energy of the prose, poured out onto a single 120-foot roll of tracing paper sheets that he cut to size and taped together, retains its power, even if some of the attitudes have dated. The book’s essential wild mix of of hedonism and asceticism is still thrilling: Accept loss forever. Be submissive to everything, open, listening. Be in love with your life.

Two versions of the book are now available, before and after the interventions of the judge: The (standard) text as first published by Viking in 1957, which is the first draft revised and edited by Kerouac and incorporating changes demanded by the publisher, and the first draft itself (the madman unfettered), published as On the Road: The Original Scroll.

On The Road original scroll
Original scroll of ‘On The Road’Jack Kerouac – Beliefs and Techniques for Modern Prose

Here’s the full list of Kerouac’s essentials. As you can see, not necessarily just for prose, but also for life. Or the other way round.

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy

2. Submissive to everything, open, listening

3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house

4. Be in love with yr life

5. Something that you feel will find its own form

6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind

7. Blow as deep as you want to blow

8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind

9. The unspeakable visions of the individual

10. No time for poetry but exactly what is

11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest

12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you

13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition

14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time

15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog

16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye

17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself

18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea

19. Accept loss forever

20. Believe in the holy contour of life

21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind

22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better

23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning

24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it

26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form

27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness

28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better

29. You’re a Genius all the time

30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

The Balkan Wars

Balkan Wars Running Sheets

Today received the running sheets for ‘The Balkan Wars’, my latest book design project. Always slight trepidation mixed in with the excitement of seeing the printed book for the first time. Happily all in order.

This is my first book project with versions being published in three languages (almost) simultaneously – English, Macedonian and Albanian. Being published in the UK by I.B.Tauris in association with The Centre for Albanian Studies. Looking forward to the book launch in Macedonia in a couple of weeks.

Balkan Wars Cover

Are cards taking over the web?

Have you noticed how cards are gaining traction as a new web design standard, a response to the need to make content work across the widest range of formats, from desktop through tablet (landscape and portrait) to mobile – and potential new devices such as Google glass.

twitter cards

Benedict Evans pointed to the changing face of Twitter, and the potential it opens up for content marketers, in his post Twitter, canvases and cards:

Then Twitter pivoted … and took control of the interface. The obvious thing that it did with that was to deliver a predictable offer for advertisers. But the more interesting thing to me was that it created a canvas – which is now turning Twitter from a protocol to a platform.

Twitter is turning ‘Twitter cards’ into a platform. You can embed video, or slides, or music – all sorts of things. You can embed a call to action that will harvest the account’s email address. And, increasingly, you can drive acquisition – of Spotify users, or apps, or customers. And thanks to retweets these cards can end up anywhere on Twitter, far beyond the original poster’s network.

What are cards?

Cards give a quick shot of information, a summary, with the ability to link to more content. You can also mimic cards in the physical world, with content on the reverse, turning the card with a click.

Cards can be used to provide an aggregated approach to content, a screen filled with nuggets of information (i.e. cards) assembled by the site according to your previous interactions, very much like Pinterest which provides a different home screen for every user, based upon your previous pins.

This is easily adapted to the mobile screen by using a ‘deck of cards’ structure. As described by Insideintercom:

This [mobile] is driving the web away from many pages of content linked together, towards individual pieces of content aggregated together into one experience.

Google+ cards

Google has also moved in this direction, with a frequent appearance of a right hand panel in Google results and the re-design of Google+.

Cards offer scalability, flexibility and a clean look from desktop to mobile. A way to provide the user fast access to the information she wants, whilst also allowing space for serendipity – for putting content in front of the user that he didn’t know he wanted. Not wholly unlike the kind of experience (that used to be) offered by flipping through the racks at a record store.

Self promotion follows!

Want to know more? Or need a copywriter who knows how to make a modular approach to content work for you? Then do get in contact.

Terror, success and French wine

I like the quick boost a good quote can give you, and just stumbled on three great ones this morning:

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou:

Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.

Georgia O’Keefe:

Georgia O'Keefe

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.

and this thought for the weekend… from John Keats:

John Keats

“Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.”

More on my Fire Starters Pinterest page

 

Are you ready?

Rolling Stones at Glastonbury
Rolling Stones at Glastonbury. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images via telegraph.co.uk

One for rock trivia fans:

“Everybody seems to be ready. Are you ready?”

Mick Jagger, Madison Square Gardens, November 1969 (only two weeks before Altamont, or so I read on Amazon).  ‘Get Yer Ya Yas Out’.

Leonard Cohen at the Isle of Wight“Are you ready? Is everybody ready?”

Leonard Cohen, Isle of Wight, August 31 1970.  ‘Leonard Cohen Live at The Isle of Wight 1970′.

After that, things get pretty different. But both great performances. And, after seeing LC recently at Waldbühne in Berlin – a fantastic, magical performance – and the Stones at Glastonbury (though on TV only sadly), both are still going strong.

Leonard’s recent renaissance, incidentally, is a good example of a positive created from misfortune: having his money stolen by his manager has led to his re-engagement with life and the world. Bad luck or good luck? Or are they just two sides of the same coin?

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same; (Kipling)

Meanwhile… know any other live albums that begin with ‘Are you ready?’

Lunch and art: The fictional and real

Renoir Boating Party Luncheon

I’m reading Edmund de Waal’s brilliant memoir ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’. Very late, I know. But, better late than never. I’ve had the book for quite a while, a charity shop purchase, but every time I picked it up the picture of the netsuke on the cover put me off. I’m still not sure I actually like the netsuke but, as so often, a good book finds you when you are ready for it.

No doubt any day now – perhaps already – editions will include access to reproductions of the objects being described. But even reading the old style printed paperback all you need to do is google and… there is Renoir’s Le Déjeuner des Canotiers, (The Luncheon of the Boating Party), in front of you, as you read the story within the story:

A red-and-white striped awning protects the party from the glare of the sun. It is after lunch in Renoir’s new world of painter, patrons and actresses, and everyone is a friend. Models smoke, drink and talk amongst the detritus of the empty bottles and the meal left on the table …

The actress Ellen Andrée, in a hat with a flower pinned to it, raises her glass to her lips. Baron Raoul Barbier, a former mayor of colonial Saigon, his brown bowler hat pushed back, talks to the young daughter of the proprietor.

Her brother, straw-hatted like a professional oarsman, stands in the foreground surveying the lunch. Caillebotte, relaxed and fit in a white singlet and boater, sits astride his chair looking at the young seamstress Aline Chaigot, Renoir’s lover and future wife.

The artist Paul Llhote sits with a Proprietorial arm around the actress Jeanne Samary. It is a matrix of smiling conversation and flirtation. And Charles is there. He is the man at the very back, in the top hat and black suit, turning slightly away, seen glancingly. You can just see his red-brown beard. He is talking with a pleasantly open-faced, poorly shaved Laforgue, dressed as a proper poet in a working man’s cap and what could even be a corduroy jacket.

The ‘Charles’ is Charles Ephrussi, cousin of the author’s great-grandfather, art collector and the first owner of the netsuke collection de Waal has inherited. Charles Ephrussi was also a friend of Proust, and part model for the aesthete and dandy Charles Swann.

De Waal draws our attention to this intriguing extract in which Proust’s fictional artist, Elstir, reflects upon the real painting (above), and the real Charles:

A gentleman … wearing a top hat at a boating party where he is clearly out of place, which proved that for Elstir he was not only a regular sitter, but a friend, perhaps a patron.

Carpe Diem – Proust on fishing

water-birch

There’s no irony (is there?) that a novel the length of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is in fact about seizing the moment – or rather, trying to understand / appreciate / experience the full depth of every moment.

In this it is closer to the more accurate rendition of the phrase ‘carpe diem’ as ‘enjoy the day, pluck the day when it is ripe.’ (thank you, phrases.org.uk).

Here he is on catching the fleeting glance of a stranger through the window of a carriage travelling in the opposite direction:

… as soon as her individuality, a soul still vague, a will unknown to me, presented a tiny picture of itself, enormously reduced but complete, in the depths of her indifferent eyes, at once, by a mysterious response of the pollen ready in me for the pistils that should receive it, I felt surging through me the embryo, equally vague, equally minute, of the desire not to let this girl pass without forcing her mind to become aware of my person, without preventing her desires from wandering to someone else, without insinuating myself into her dreams and taking possession of her heart. Meanwhile our carriage had moved on; the pretty girl was already behind us; and as she had—of me—none of those notions which constitute a person in one’s mind, her eyes, which had barely seen me, had forgotten me already.

For Proust, every day is ripe for the picking; it is only habit and familiarity (and laziness) that dulls our vivid experience of every moment.

In the first place, the impossibility of stopping when we meet a woman, the risk of not meeting her again another day, give her at once the same charm as a place derives from the illness or poverty that prevents us from visiting it, or the lustreless days which remain to us to live from the battle in which we shall doubtless fall. So that, if there were no such thing as habit, life must appear delightful to those of us who are continually under the threat of death—that is to say, to all mankind.

And to fully appreciate every moment, it’s no good standing back, on the sidelines:

in the state of mind in which we “observe” we are a long way below the level to which we rise when we create.

To truly catch the fleeting moment we need to engage our imagination:

We need, between us and the fish which, if we saw it for the first time cooked and served on a table, would not appear worth the endless shifts and wiles required to catch it, the intervention, during our afternoons with the rod, of the rippling eddy to whose surface come flashing, without our quite knowing what we intend to do with them, the bright gleam of flesh, the hint of a form, in the fluidity of a transparent and mobile azure.

Proust on fishing! Who knew?! It certainly slipped by me first time around. But caught this time. All of which is to say, in a roundabout way, that after a break I’m just limbering up for Volume III: The Guermantes Way.

Penelope Trunk homage

Penelope Trunk

I read this paragraph. Then I read it again. It’s so wonderful and perfect I’m co-opting it here until I can write one this good:

The books were late, but of all the people who bought books, I only got one really angry note. Unfortunately she put the note in my comments section on the blog, for everyone to see. Fortunately, it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want, so I deleted the comment. I sent her a nice response, though. I did not tell her that she is outside the US and because I am a mail-order rube, I gave all international orders free shipping. But at least now I can say I’ve got experience in the export business.

I’m about two years late bringing this post to your attention (even later than her books!). But I think it’s a gem. if you haven’t read the whole thing, go straight there now. Enjoy.

Beauty and daily life

Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera

Stop. Listen. Think. Look
The point of art is to remind us to be alive. To open our eyes. This is a great quote from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera:

It is wrong to chide the novel for being satisfied by mysterious coincidences, but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

Thank you musicthoughts.com (a new site by Derek Sivers) for reminding me of this great quote from the book by Milan Kundera. The site is a growing compendium of quotes, mainly about music. Here’s another great quote on the site, from Proust:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Being You

I was listening to Tom Waits version of ‘Somewhere‘ (on ‘Blue Valentine’) and remembering Leonard Bernstein, in the documentary of the 1984 recording of West Side Story (the first time he conducted his own music, incidentally), tearing his hair out because Jose Carreras (playing Tony) just couldn’t help but keep slipping back into perfect pronunciation, away from the street gang edge that Bernstein was looking for.

Tom Waits by Anton Corbijn
Tom Waits by Anton Corbijn

More than likely Waits would be more than a few shades too far the other way for Bernstein (and indeed my mother-in-law who thought the CD player had broken), but opera singers versions of folk or pop songs rarely work because the sound of their voice is just too pure and polished.

And you don’t have to go as far as opera singers. Just think of the Byrds’ limp, smoothed out version of Mr Tambourine Man which empties the song of all challenge and meaning (even whilst it way outsold Dylan’s version). Listen to the sand and glue of Dylan and you feel the power of the words.

It’s something Seth Godin pointed to in his post ‘Effortless’,  taking John Coltrane playing ‘Harmonique’ as an example:

Sometimes, “never let them see you sweat,” is truly bad advice. The work of an individual who cares often exposes the grit and determination and effort that it takes to be present.

Perfecting your talk, refining your essay and polishing your service until all elements of you disappear might be obvious tactics, but they remove the thing we were looking for: you.

To get in the mood for celebrating you, just watch this encore from the proms in which Gustavo Dudamel and the Bolivars (Simon Bolivar Orchestra) don tracksuit tops in Venezuelan colours and rip into ‘Mambo!’ (from West Side Story). Speaking to Intelligent Life, Jamie Bernstein (daughter of Leonard) had no doubt her father would have loved it:

“I never thought I would again have those chills in a concert that I used to get watching my dad conduct … He would have gone down there, to Venezuela, in a shot. He would have crushed every rib in Gustavo’s body with a hug … He would have been beside himself with excitement.”
 

Jahrhunderttalent

Gustavo Dudamel

Jahrhunderttalent. A
nother beautiful German word to follow on from ‘Heimweh’ (see Primo Levi below). In her long article for Intelligent Life magazine Clemency Burton-Hill quotes the music executive Deborah Borda on first seeing Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel in performance –

“The Germans have a word for it: Jahrhunderttalent. Once in a hundred years. That was my immediate feeling. Once in a hundred years.”

It’s a great piece in the best magazine I know (and the only one I subscribe to). You can read the article, and much more, at moreintelligentlife.co.uk

Speaking of exciting talents: Listening to her breathtaking recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, I’m tempted to nominate Alisia Weilerstein – except it’s not quite 50 years since Jacqueline du Pré’s landmark recording (also, of course, with Barenboim). But this is no place for ‘either/or.’ Here one can only celebrate abundance.

Who would you nominate as a Jahrhunderttalent?

Remembering the Holocaust

Stolperstein

When one works, one suffers and there is no time to think: our homes are less than a memory. But here [in Ka Be, the infirmary] the time is ours: from bunk to bunk, despite the prohibition, we exchange visits and we talk and we talk. The wooden hut, crammed with suffering humanity, is full of words, memories and of another pain. ‘Heimweh’, the Germans call this pain; it is a beautiful word, it means ‘longing for one’s home’.

Primo Levi, ‘If This Is A Man’ (from Chapter 4 ‘Ka-Be)

A ‘Stolperstein’ (‘stumbling block’; plural Stolpersteine) on Nollendorfstraße, Berlin, just down the road from No. 17, Fraulein Thurau’s boarding house, where Christopher Isherwood lived between 1929 and 1933 and wrote the stories that would be published as Goodbye to Berlin (and inspired the movie Cabaret).

The Stolpersteine are a memorialisation project by artist Gunter Demnig. These small, cobblestone-sized brass memorials to the victims of Nazism are set into the pavement in front of buildings where a victim once lived or worked, calling attention both to the individual victim and the scope of the Nazi war crimes.

So far more than 32,000 Stolpersteine have been installed in over 700 cities across Europe, including Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, in the Czech Republic, in Poland, in Italy (Rome) and Norway (Oslo).

Posted on Holocaust Memorial Day. Photo: Westrow, Berlin, 5 Sept 2012

David Bowie and George Orwell meet in blank space

Blank space is the central theme in the design for two iconic works released this month.

The album cover for the thrilling and unexpected release of new music by David Bowie, with strong allusions to his Berlin period, is presented in a blanked out cover of Heroes:

Album cover for 'The Next Day' by David Bowie
Album cover for ‘The Next Day’ by David Bowie

In his post on the design, Jonathan Barnbrook writes

The obscuring of an image from the past is also about the wider human condition; we move on relentlessly in our lives to the next day, leaving the past because we have no choice but to. [read full text here]

In the new edition of George Orwell’s 1984 released to commemorate the inaugural ‘Orwell Day’ (today! 21 Jan 2013), the text is blacked out using matt black foil over debossed type, leaving just enough of an imprint for the reader to make out the words – and subtly communicating the idea that censorship and authoritarianism will never fully succeed in eradicating memory or possibility.

Cover for 1984 by George Orwell by David Pearson
Cover for 1984 by George Orwell by David Pearson

We can be heroes, for more than one day …