Documentation, Disrupted

Just came across this great presentation by Google tech writer Riona MacNamara at WriteTheDocs recent Portland conference (May 19, 2015).

The subject area is technical documentation, and is very interesting on that score. But it’s about so much more – most importantly, what you can achieve by being audacious (but not reckless), focused (but open and generous), and unafraid.

I love the subtle qualifications that make all the difference – audacious, but not reckless, for example. Though note that there is no qualification for unafraid: you’ve just got to be unafraid (or, maybe as likely, feel the fear – and do it anyway. There’s also a lot of good stuff on happiness, work and making a difference.

Now looking at ways to get to the WriteTheDocs conference in Prague.

Anyway, enjoy – and one thought to take away:

“Authority and influence don’t derive from your resumé, but from action and impact.” Riona MacNamara

Advertisements

Handshake addendum

Whilst on the subject (of handshakes), remarks by Professor Peter Piot on Desert Island Discs this morning made fascinating – and poignant – listening.

He is Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an expert on HIV and Ebola.

On a recent trip to Sierra Leone he noticed that the local people have developed new conventions for greeting – the ‘Ebola shake’ – in order to avoid the touching of hands which, in the presence of Ebola, can be deadly.

Men are greeting each other by touching elbows; Women, a touch on the dress.

He emphasised what a significant change this was in a culture where “touch is huge” and making a physical connection when you greet someone is deeply rooted.

It will be interesting to see if this marks a permanent change or whether, after the epidemic, people return to shaking hands.

You can listen to the clip here, and the entire programme here.

And incidentally (I’m just discovering this subject is huge!), listen to how campaigner and supreme networker Julia Cleverdon’s “fingers itch every time I arrive at a gathering” here.

Need carefully crafted content for your business? Please contact me now

How to Give a Good Handshake

shaking-hands

Getting out and about in the New Year has got me thinking about handshakes. We all know how important first impressions are – so how can you make the best first impression with your handshake?

It’s seems the subject is fraught with insecurity – according to a survey for Chevrolet (quoted by The Daily Mail) some 70% of people said they lacked confidence about their ability to give a good handshake.

So, gathering together some advice (including from etiquette international) – How to shake hands with aplomb:

First things first

  • Use the right hand
  • Keep the fingers together with the thumb open and up
  • Extend your hand forward to the other person’s so that thumb and forefingers meet

Proper character

  • Squeeze firmly, but not bone-crushingly (!). The object is to convey trust and reassurance, not overbearing dominance
  • If the other person offers a very limp hand, consider giving a gentle squeeze; he/she may take this as a cue to grip more firmly
  • If you are sitting down, stand up before extending your hand (unless you are both sitting at a table)
  • Leave your left hand open by your side; don’t leave it in your pocket – a clear signal of lack of interest

How long should a handshake last?

  • Shake hands by creating and up and down motion by raising your hand from the elbow a couple of times so that the handshake lasts about 3 seconds.
  • Release after the shake, even if you are continuing to introduce yourselves. More than three ‘shakes’ begins to suggest ‘psycho’; or extreme nervousness.
  • Do not pump the hand (‘unless the other person is insistent on just that. Then pump the hell out of their hand” – Tom Chiarella)

Whilst you are shaking hands

  • Smile
  • Maintain eye contact with the other person
  • Offer an appropriate verbal greeting e.g. ‘Very pleased to meet you.” [Sidebar: classically, the correct answer to the question ‘How do you do?’ is to repeat the question. However, I find this a bit formal for most purpose and prefer a “Very well thank you; And yourself..?” or something along those lines. Naturally I say ‘Very well’ even if feeling at death’s door.]

Handshaking turn-offs

  • Sweaty palms
  • Limp-wristed grip
  • Extending fingers only

Handshaking tips

To prevent clammy hands:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water beforehand
  • Consider applying a spray of antiperspirant once or more a day, and/or using alcohol-based wipes
  • Drink plenty of water

If you are at an event with drinks, hold the drink in the left hand to avoid giving a cold, wet handshake

A caution

“You can tell the character of a person by their handshake.” Kathy Magliato. But beware: giving a proper handshake can also be learned and deployed by the bounder — “I have twice met Jeffrey Archer, and on both occasions was struck by the firmness of his handshake – and the way he looked me straight in the eye, too.” Craig Brown

And finally

Thank you kindly for stopping by, and If you have enjoyed this post please share it on your preferred social networks. 

Offline and Online Convergence

Moleskine Smart NotebookThe partnership between Moleskine and Adobe on a new Creative Cloud Moleskine notebook promises to be a notable step forward in the convergence of the offline and online worlds.

The notebook and accompanying app enable you to turn hand-drawn sketches directly into fully workable digital files.

How does it work ?

You draw in the notebook, take a photo using the cloud-connected Moleskine app on your iPhone, and a vector version (SVG file) of your sketch is automatically transferred to your Adobe Creative Cloud account, where it can be edited in Photoshop or Illustrator.

Whilst the app can be used on any paper, the dot markings on the pages of the Moleskine notebook provide a frame of reference to help remove distortion (from paper or lens) and optimise the image.

This partnership is the latest step in Moleskine’s digital journey, and perhaps the most significant yet to seek to bridge the gap between paper and screen.

As a quintessentially analogue product, Moleskine’s investment in developing products to link real to virtual is obviously a strategic move to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world. It promises to offer the tactile, satisfying feel of sketching with pen or pencil on paper with the convenience and versatility (in terms of sharing and editing) of digital.

In short, enabling us to have our cake and eat it.

Earlier Moleskine efforts to link analogue to digital are nowhere near as flexible or neat. For example, The Moleskine Livescribe Notebook enables editable digital text, but you have to use the Livescribe ‘Smartpen’ which does not really offer the same feel as writing with a pen or pencil (leaving aside the cost of the pens and decidedly mixed reviews regarding how well they work).

The Evernote Business notebook enables easy incorporation of hand-written notes into Evernote (and has some nifty features so that you can separate parts of the page and add tags) but the text is not editable.

Does the  Creative Cloud Moleskine work? – I haven’t had a chance to try it out, but it is available in Europe from December 15.

Why Customer Experience Matters – Data

Businessman jump and calling over success sign outdoor

Customer Experience (CX) is now widely discussed and duly name-checked in any web marketing context – but all too often this is as far as it gets. There is no follow through or readiness to invest in improvements.

However, as this 2014 study by Watermark Consulting vividly demonstrates, the top 10 leaders in Forrester Research’s annual Customer Experience Index Rankings not only outperformed the market over the last 7 years, generating a total return that was 26 points higher than the S&P 500 Index, but also enjoyed

  • Higher revenues – due to better retention, less price sensitivity, greater wallet share and positive word-of-mouth.
  • Lower expenses – due to reduced acquisition costs, fewer complaints, and the less intense service requirements of happy, loyal customers.

By contrast, the CX laggards (the bottom 10 in the Index) not only posted a negative stock return of -2.5% during a period (2007-13) when the broader market rose, but also suffered in terms of lower revenues and higher operating costs.

How to create exceptional customer experience

The Watermark report offers some valuable insights from the leaders of the top performing companies as to how to create a compelling and memorable customer experience:

  • Aim for more than customer satisfaction – shape interactions that cultivate loyalty, not just satisfaction
  • Nail the basics, then deliver pleasant surprises
  • Understand that great experiences are intentional and emotional
  • Use cognitive science to manage both the reality and the perception of the customer experience
  • Recognize the link between the customer & employee experience – Happy, engaged employees help create happy, loyal customers

Why it matters

The opportunities offered by delivering exceptional customer experience are significant, as the Watermark report suggests:

The competitive opportunity implied by this study is compelling, because the reality today is that many sources of competitive differentiation can be fleeting. Product innovations can be mimicked, technology advances can be copied, and cost leadership is difficult to achieve let alone sustain.

But a great customer experience, and the internal ecosystem supporting it, can deliver tremendous strategic and economic value to a business, in a way that’s difficult for competitors to replicate.

Full report 

The above offers a quick digest of Watermark’s short but powerful report. You can download the full report from this page.

Past and present: Design is how it works

The Word

The good thing about magazines – I mean the actual, real, glossy paper ones (glossy not mandatory) is that you can sometimes find them, years, long after you’ve forgotten you ever had them, in the back of the desk drawer, under the sofa or wherever. Like this issue of The Word magazine. And that wonderfully tactile act of flicking through the pages brings the past back to life with the intensity of Proust’s madeleine.

Here’s Kate Bush back in December 2011 saying “I’ve got no plans to tour again, but never say never.” And possibly in the very act of saying these words, repeating them probably for interviewer after interviewer asking the same question (she’d just released her album 50 Words for Snow), the germ of an idea begins to form in her mind – ‘what about, instead of touring, I stay put and get the audience to come to me?’ And hey! three years later…

Also, this being December 2011, there is an obituary of Steve Jobs. Actually a very good one by David Hepworth. It includes this brilliant quote which identifies the understanding of design which propelled Apple’s success:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s the veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not we think design is. It’s not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.”

The Word did not itself survive to review the Kate Bush ‘tour’, but I’ve just discovered that the best bit of the magazine – the podcast – is back. I’m not sure if it’s in any way a regular thing, but anyway it’s a hugely enjoyable 40 minutes or so of chat, and somehow works in the way the magazine didn’t. The lead for Word podcast 223 (just released) will give you an idea of the kind of thing you can expect:

In which Mark Ellen, Fraser Lewry and David Hepworth consider U2’s album, the rum work done in the name of the “rock doc” and the proper duties of a household cat

In other words – content worthy of the name. You can find it on hipcast and iTunes.

Talking about Steve Jobs and lost things, I’ve also recently discovered his ‘lost’ interview, which also contains a lot of good stuff on product design and development, and the importance of making great products. It dates from 1995, when he was still running NeXT Computers. Six months later he rejoined Apple and the rest, as they say …

Can social media actually generate sales ? – Data

social media players

Do posts or ads on social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest and twitter actually generate sales? According to a new report from Business Insider the answer is emphatically Yes. And growing.

For while direct referrals from a social network may account for only a fraction of sales today, the volume of social commerce is growing quickly – in many cases in triple digits. Overall, last year social commerce sales grew at three times the rate of overall e-commerce.

Some key points from the report:

Social commerce is growing fast

According to the Internet Retailer’s Social Media 500, the top 500 retailers earned $2.69 billion from social shopping in 2013, up more than 60% over 2012. By contrast, the e-commerce market as a whole grew by only 17%.

First click vs. last click

Social commerce is even larger in terms of revenue generation when you look at where consumers begin their purchase process, i.e. first click, (as opposed to using traditional methods such as last click before purchase)

Buy buttons

Growth is very likely to accelerate and conversion rates improve as Twitter and Facebook roll out ‘Buy’ buttons; this will allow social-network audiences to initiate an e-commerce purchase by clicking on a retailer’s post or tweet. Facebook’s tests began in July, Twitter’s in September.

Facebook

Facebook is the clear leader for social-commerce referrals and sales: This is due in large part to the sheer size of its audience — 71% of US adult internet users are on Facebook. A Facebook share of an e-commerce post translates to an average $3.58 in revenue from sales, according to AddShoppers. On Twitter, a share or retweet is worth only 85 cents.

Pinterest

But other sites are gaining, and even leading on, specific metrics, such as average order value (AOV): Polyvore, for example, sees $66.75 in AOV from social referrals, according to Shopify. Pinterest sees $65, compared to Facebook which sees $55 AOV. Pinterest also drives more social sharing of retail content than any other network including Facebook.

Read more here.

Image courtesy of jscreationsz at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If we could show you the future…

The Future

would you walk all over it?

Back in the day, at the agency where I was working, we were pleased with this mailer to the customers of a flooring manufacturer announcing their new website.

If-show-me-the-future

Those were the days – when you sent out a mailer to tell people you had a website. In a world of contradictions, perhaps not a huge one. (And maybe, as the virtual world becomes ever more omnipresent, a return to actual letters and real mail may re-emerge as a useful way of differentiation).

But, in our increasingly digital-first world, it’s not only the paranoid who are questioning whether the future may be threatening to walk all over us – rather than the other way around.

The Circle

In Dave Eggers recent novel, The Circle,  he presents a dystopian view of the future in which social participation and connectedness allows for the individual’s entire day to be totally monitored. No choice or action goes unrecorded, as ‘Circlers’ joyfully embrace their social media duties – or opportunities:

“See, you’re getting all last week’s stuff, too. That’s why there’s so many. Wow, you really missed a lot.”

Mae followed the counter to the bottom of the screen, calculating all the messages sent to her from everyone else at the Circle. The counter paused at 1,200, Then 4,400. The numbers scrambled higher, stopping periodically but finally settling at 8,276.

“That was last week’s messages? Eight thousand?”

“You can catch up,” Gina said brightly. Maybe even tonight. Now, let’s open your regular social account. […]”

Whilst it is explicitly NOT about Google, the recent claim by (Google CEO) Larry Page that fear of data-mining of healthcare may be costing as many as 100,000 lives a year could be straight out of the pages of The Circle.

Managing to be both hilarious and chilling,  The Circle is essentially a 1984 for the digital age.  With the twist that this time it’s not a political regime but a commercial enterprise that is making the bid for total control. And making headway fast in that direction.

[You could describe it as the author looking at the world around him and asking not ‘What would Google do?‘ but ‘What would George Orwell think?’]

Once you ‘go clear’ (Eggers appropriates a term from Scientology), the only escape from the all-seeing eyes of your ‘watchers’ is the bathroom, and then only for 3 minutes or your watchers will begin to bombard you with their concerns for your health. And of course you can’t visit the bathroom too often or you will provoke a similar torrent of concern.

But nothing is ever enough for The Circle in its voracious desire to be your friend, and every shard of privacy and autonomy is under threat in its bid to get inside your head and make you a passenger in your own life – for which the perfect metaphor, and the perfect vehicle, is the driverless car.

You can’t drive over a cliff if you’re not at the wheel. “If my thought dreams could be seen…” as Dylan sang all those years ago.

Day 1

In a recent profile in The Observer, hung on the launch of the Fire phone, I discovered the ‘Day 1’ obsession of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and his view – expressed in a recent letter to shareholders – ‘that we haven’t even reached Day 1 of the internet yet. That the “alarm clock hasn’t even gone off yet” and that the world is “still asleep” to what the rest of Day 1 will bring.’

Founded 20 years ago (5 July 1994) as an online bookstore, Amazon clearly intends to become (if at all possible and as soon as possible) the shop for everything.

The  recently launched Fire Phone is, as The Observer reports, ‘the latest salvo in the great three-way tech battle between Amazon, Apple and Google. They want each other’s business and are, as wired.com suggested, “all turning into each other”.’

At the launch Bezos is reported to have spent as much time talking about Amazon Prime as he did talking about the phone – which is expected to lose £176m this year and up to £330m next year, according to analysts. To make up for this loss, each phone owner would have to spend £207 more on Amazon products than the average customer.

Someone has clearly done the math:

The average Prime member spends £719 a year on Amazon, £411 more than a regular user. Prime members’ purchases and membership fees make up more than a third of Amazon’s US profits. And membership is projected to rise 150%, to 25 million, by 2017.

The in-built network connectivity of the Kindle makes it easy to purchase books, and also means Amazon can ‘see’ not only what you are reading but where you have got to in the book. And now comes… Kindle unlimited – the equivalent of a streaming service for books and audiobooks.

Between us, ideas become reality indeed.

 

10 Ways To Make Money in a Free World


This is the freebie e-book distillation of The Curve by Nicholas Lovell and, whilst he does not address the short tail specifically, (surveyed here in this post), The Curve essentially argues that there is plenty of life left in the long tail – if you do it right.

Or, as the blurb puts it, The Curve is Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail meets Seth Godin’s Purple Cow.

So – how do you make money when everything is going free? You take advantage of the amazing opportunity to connect with the people who love what you do:

The same technology that enables files to be shared easily also offers an unprecedented opportunity to build one-to-one relationships with your customers and fans. The web enables artists and businesses to share what they do at a very low cost while building relationships with customers, some of whom will become fans, some of whom will become superfans. How you choose to respond to this opportunity will determine how you fare in the digital age.

Superfans are the key to the curve’s economic model, and how to make the long tail work for you. It’s a three step process:

  1. Use free to find an audience
  2. Use technology to stay in touch with that audience and figure out what they value
  3. Allow those who love what you do to spend lots of money on things they really value

He is right (I think) that content is not enough any more, only great content works now; and adds something valuable in his analysis of the mindset for the digital age:

If you are thinking about units sold, you are thinking in a pre-digital way: you are focused on your product, not your customers. If you are thinking about Average Revenue per User (ARPU), you are putting your customer at the heart of your business.

The customer needs to be at the heart of your business, but the sustainability of your business depends upon finding customers for high value experiences (cynic: are we just saying here ‘ask – what would Apple do?’)

 The solution is to flip your thinking. To focus not on finding the biggest possible audience but to seek out the superfans who love what you do. To use the cheap distribution of the internet to start the process of connecting with fans – and then craft products, services and artistic creations which they will pay lots of money for.

In the book Lovell cites the inspiring example of musician Zoe Keating who is making a good living embracing free, giving her music away but asking fans to make a purchase somewhere along the line or the show will be over.

Go ahead. Stream it. Share it. Pirate it. Torrent it as much as you want. But keep in mind I am 100 per cent DIY. I trust that if you love my music, your moral code will compel you to come to a concert, or buy an album, or a T-shirt directly from me.

The example of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is less convincing. Because although he is making a massive success of embracing digital and free, he had already established his name through the record company system.

In a very direct way, Lovell himself is also testing his theory. 10 Ways to Make Money in a Free World is the short, free version of The Curve. Will you go on to buy The Curve? Or tread further up the superfan highway and attend a Curve lunch; consult with NL himself (a £POA limited opportunity); or even commission a bespoke Curve masterclass for up to 25 people?

 

Is This the Era of the Short Head ?

Rhino

Rhino, courtesy wildlife-pictures-online.com

Have you noticed how winners seem to win ever bigger these days. That one book/film/app/search engine etc. takes a mega-portion of the market, leaving all the rest fighting over a tiny slice of the cake?

Well, there’s a theory for this: the short head.

In the 10 rules of the short head, Dan Chen provides some persuasive statistics:

  • The top 10% of songs on iTunes get 86% of streams, and account for 90% of the store’s total sales
  • 2.7% of Amazon’s titles produce 75% of its revenues
  • 4.5% of apps generate 86% of the revenues, 0.1% generate more than 50%
  • 14% of movies generate 90% of revenues
  • Even in live performance the top 5% of artists get 84% of concert ticket revenues (56% of revenues going to the top 1%)

In January 2014 Oxfam claimed a similar type of concentration in terms of the world’s wealth – that the 85 richest people are as wealthy as the poorest half of the world.

So what about the long tail ?

All this is in stark contrast to the long tail, the theory developed by Chris Anderson in the early 2000s, that the future lay in selling less of more, that “our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of ‘hits’ (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.”

The short head is essentially the opposite of the long tail, and appears to be prevailing: the present reality of business is selling more of less. But why?

Ring Tailed Lemur

Ring Tailed Lemur, creative commons

Choice and social media

One of the reasons lies in the sheer quantity of choice available. Who has the time to go through all the options, check out all the new games, listen to all the new bands?

Instead our attention is drawn to the  apps/songs/games etc. that get featured on iTunes, Amazon etc., the ones that are most popular, have sold most, have the best/most reviews.

And this effect is multiplied by social media. Here’s Dan Chen again: ‘New stuff spreads through social interaction and, thanks to social media, we now have hundreds a day, where before we might have had just a few. Thus we adopt much faster.’

It took the telephone about 75 years to reach 50 million users. The app Draw Something achieved the same milestone in something like 35 days.

Instead of broadening our horizons and nurturing our unique, niche interests – it turns out we all want the same stuff.

Is the news all bad ?

I don’t think it’s time to throw in the towel just yet. To some degree at least, there are a huge number of niches in the tail, and the internet has enabled huge numbers of small businesses and solopreneurs to find a market.

We may not be making fortunes but, in many cases, we are making a living.

And there’s always hope: The developers of Angry Birds released 51 apps that failed to make an impact before hitting the jackpot.

Furthermore – though this cuts both ways – there’s no clear map to hitsville for big business or micro business (see this post on Seth’s blog).

Gartner’s January 2014 report says that less than 0.01 Percent of Consumer Mobile Apps Will Be Considered a Financial Success by Their Developers Through 2018.

“The vast number of mobile apps may imply that mobile is a new revenue stream that will bring riches to many,” said Ken Dulaney, VP and analyst at Gartner. “However, our analysis shows that most mobile applications are not generating profits and that many mobile apps are not designed to generate revenue, but rather are used to build brand recognition and product awareness or are just for fun. Application designers who do not recognize this may find profits elusive.”

Google redesign and page titles

You’ve probably noticed Google implemented a redesign of its search results pages recently.

accountants-search-web

Jon Wiley, the lead designer for Google search, posted in Google+ that:

We’ve increased the size of result titles, removed the underlines, and evened out all the line heights. This improves readability and creates an overall cleaner look. We’ve also brought over our new ad labels from mobile, making the multi-device experience more consistent.

If you look closely you’ll also see a faint grey line beneath the sections of results. In the example above, beneath the ads at the top and below the first three organic search results: maybe the first move towards the card-like look of Google+ and Google Now.

Adwords

In bringing over the new ‘Ad’ labels, Google adwords results no longer have a shaded background, separating them from the organic results, and the little subtitle that used to display at the top of the shaded block – ‘Ads related to [keyword]’ – has also gone.

These factors tend to break down the separation between ads and organic search results – a reflection of Google’s policy of taking into account the quality of the destination landing page as a factor in determining which ads rank highest in the ‘ad auction’ for particular keywords. See more on this in Adwords Essentials.

Shorter page titles

The larger typeface and removal of underlines creates a cleaner and clearer look.for the page titles and the results page as a whole.

However, increasing the font size does mean that long titles (for example, of 70 characters) will no longer fit; they are cut short with a trailing ellipsis – see the example above.

Due to the different widths of letters there is no definitive cut-off point below which you can be certain your title will be displayed in full. However, if you keep your title to 55 characters or less, and not all caps, it will almost certainly be displayed in full. Well, 95.8% likely likely if the analysts I’ve read are correct.

If you want to be more certain how your page title will display in Google search results, there’s a useful tool at moz.com where you can test it out.

The page description, incidentally, gets cut off after roughly 160 characters.

The St James Infirmary Blues

Folk songs, memes, and going viral

It’s been a long road down but I hope I’m finally and decisively on the way back up and I won’t be playing the pneumonia blues no more.

However I have been playing the St James Infirmary Blues and what a great song it is. You can play it quietly as a lamentation, fiercely as a howl of rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or any combination in an extended improv.

Credited as ‘traditional’, it has been taken up and reinterpreted through the generations, moving across time and space.

The song is based on an 18th century English folksong ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, which recounted the story of the untimely death of a soldier from venereal disease after frequenting too many prostitutes.

The St James Infirmary of the title is often claimed to be the St James leprosy hospital in London; however since this hospital closed in the 1530s when Henry VIII acquired the land to build St James’s Palace , this is questionable.

When the song emerges in the USA in the early 20th century, somewhere along its transatlantic journey the subject has become a young woman, and the cause of her downfall is drinking and gambling.

There are countless variations in the lyrics, and of course in the playing, but the version recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1928 begins

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So sweet, so cold, so bare.

Going viral

It strikes me that folk songs are an early form of going viral, or of memes threading their way through different cultures.

They also provide a perfect example of content with soul – that is, content produced by people who are passionate about their mission and their audience.

(That is, if describing folk songs as content is helpful in any way.)

I have a feeling content marketing may give content a bad name. Endless stuff produced with ever decreasing effect because it is transparently marketing as opposed to a genuine and meaningful value exchange (see digitaltonto for an interesting post on this).

But if we take the richness of experience of the St James Infirmary Blues as a guide then maybe, just maybe, our content (and even our content marketing) may have the impact we hope for. And staying power.

In the meantime, play it one more time. From the top…

Twelve Shims at Dorchester Hospital

20140227-182028.jpg
Twelve Shims, by David Nash. (1999)

Really enjoyed this work at Dorchester hospital this afternoon.

Luckily this time only an out-patient but seeing this you can almost forget why you were there. It makes a difference and transforms the space. Like a row of full sails gusting along the corridor, it’s a joy to behold and lifts the spirits.

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick …Sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Susan Sontag).

Art in hospitals helps to make the other place more bearable.

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