Sunday, 27 January 2013

Cameron calls for Europe to leave Europe.

Commentators have had a great chance this week to scan the great skies of Western Europe, as they ponder their own opinion of David Cameron's speech. Or to be precise, the first draft of David Cameron's election manifesto, a document that would not normally merit much debate.

Yet everyone has managed to manufacture a view. The New York Times thought it not a good speech, Der Spiegel and Bild thought it stupid ("Crazy...Brits put Europe into a frenzy"). Andrew Rawnsley thought it appealed to the people that didn't matter, Nigel Farage thought it appealed to the people that did matter, though he pretended they didn't. Douglas Alexander thought it left a gap between what it set out to achieve and what the wrong people needed it to achieve in order to win their support.  Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, made an unexpected statement to the effect of 'Yes! We should, like, totally have a referendum'. The Economist had a Eurocentric take, saying that Cameron didn't buy into the vision of Europe shared by France and Germany, as if that wasn't obvious, and that it might pose problems for UK business and its finance sector in particular.

The FT and Telegraph were embedded with the Eurosceptics, so they carried Cameron's view that a new settlement would work not just for Britain but for all EU countries, in effect saying that the whole continent should follow Britain into the waiting room of Europe. "Cameron calls on Europe to leave Europe," would be an eloquent expression of this position.

Meanwhile, on the far right, frothing Europhobics cheered the Cameron speech not from a vision of an independent Britain made powerful through its exploitation of its own workforce and evisceration of public services, but through a peculiar assumption that Europe, the world's richest trading bloc, will simply and inexplicably go belly up. The headline, 'Europe just totally stops!' doesn't seem very likely, but hey, stranger things haven't happened ever. 

There are thousands of other articles and blogs, from  'You tell 'em, Dave' to 'He's pandering to his chums'.  All carry gems of valid observation, but the phenomenon reminds you how useless we all are, and Economists are in particular at predicting even straightforward consequences of a news event. In physical and social science there are many forms of experimental bias which skew results in predictable ways, but this pseudo-scientific analysis of events is desperately prone to that most pernicious bullshit engine, 'confirmation bias'.  In other words, the assumptions and worldview that each blogger or commentator starts from skews the prediction into uselessness.

But even if they start from a neutral place, as maybe Caroline Lucas or The Economist might like to claim, predictions are unlikely to be of any value, adding only to the uncertainty that we're supposed to be worried about.

Hang a Louis, driver, this is the Palace.  No wait...
Not only that, but European history has always moved like waves in a contained pool, rather than ripples into an open sea. Anyone who has ever been a school boy or girl in Western Europe will probably remember the moment in a history lesson when they were introduced to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He was spotted in 1914 reversing back up a street in Sarajevo that his driver had turned into by mistake. The spotter, a 19-year-old member of Young Bosnia, recognised the plumed hat and the Archduke paid the ultimate price. As children we are startled by the fact that such a footling, opportunistic event could have caused such generation-ending bloodshed, slaying Australians, Canadians, Indians, Japanese, Newfoundlanders, Rhodesians and South Africans as well as the millions of working age men from most of the European countries surrounding the badly signposted street in question.

The relevance of the event is both linear and illustrative. Firstly, there is an unbroken string of events from the World War that the Archduke's assassination triggered to David Cameron's speech on Europe. Secondly, the unauthored logic of that string of events shows up how inadequate the opinions, the leader columns, the  thinks-pieces by economists, journalists and political editors truly are. What a journalist or newspaper proprietor thinks of David Cameron has no bearing on what his speech might or might not mean, just as an opinion of Archduke Ferdinand's skiing posture had no affect at all on the likelihood of a second front opening up to the East once the war had started.  That's not how things work. Not in Europe, anyhow. The wrong people say and do the the wrong things for the wrong reasons and the outcomes are governed by forces outside of the immediate triggers.

Every day, delegations of inner city school children arrive at Portcullis House in Westminster to lobby MPs. Alongside them are representations from Somalia, Canadian War Veterans, Disabled people, Animal Rights protestors, British Clay workers, Basketball Associations and so on, unaware of the solipsism with which they will be received. The scrabble in the the MP's office before meeting one of these groups, whose life's work is on the line, is not fevered briefings about the visitors' plight, but the digging out of a camera for the obligatory shot for the MP's newsletter. A politician is by definition someone who is mindful at all times and exclusively of his own position. If there was any other motivation to David Cameron's big speech it remains unfathomed. Vision is what the school children have, and the Animal Right protestors, not the person paid to make speeches on their behalf.

Gavrilo Princip's motivation to gun down the Archduke may have been to enable South Slav states to break from Austria-Hungary, or it may have been to get laid. It doesn't matter.   Similarly, Cameron's motivation is not relevant.  It may or may not be to appease the Private Health Companies that paid for his candidates to reach office and want to work their doctors harder. But it too doesn't much matter.  In both cases a small event gives an unseen and unknowable sequence of other events a push.  The referendum may happen, Health companies may break away from the European Working Hours directive.  But that's not the whole picture. There are other visions, elsewhere, that may be more powerful.  Making ripples into this pond may just set in train a variety of regional visions, economic plans, alliances and causes that will look obvious only once they have happened. A German-British Axis running a Northern European dominated EU could be the unexpected consequence down the line, or a President Blair, or a Europe siding with Japan against China in WW3.  No one knows.  The consequence of  claiming that a speech will be a major event has already been proven: you create an event even though the content turns out to be vacuous. Given the attitude of the US, if the speech hadn't been signposted it probably would have been cancelled without consequence.  

But then if that street in Sarajevo had been better signposted, maybe none of this would have happened and right now I'd be a Regional Head of the Imperial Indian railway.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The NRA's Wayne LaPierre is beginning to look a lot like Milhouse.

Wayne LaPierre is the NRA CEO who to took the opportunity of 20 child shootings in Connecticut to say in a press statement that armed guards should stand outside infants' classrooms. He is loaded, his guns are loaded, his arguments are loaded. But does that mean he's wrong?  His sensitivity as to the correct moment to open his mouth is that of a baby hiding from the Nazis. But does that mean he's wrong? Let's consider the evidence. His face.

Allowing for the difference in age, skin colour, and creator's medium his physiognomy betrays clear similarities to that of Milhouse Van Houten. The conformist hairline, the myopic gaze, the weak chin, the intelligent forehead, submissive ears and imploring eyebrows all give clues as to natural temperament, the raw material to be moulded by the forces of nurture.

And while Wayne's schooling was unarguably the better-heeled of the two, taking place at the Patrick Henry high school in Ranoake, VA. many of the same pressures and motivators that afflicted Milhouse at Springfield Elementary, apply to Wayne. Like Milhouse, Wayne was studious, majoring in Education and surely would, like Milhouse In Series 21 Episode 2, have supposed that life's answers were to be found in a bookstore. Like Milhouse too, he was ambitious. The former was hoping to become a Krusketeer in Season 19 episode 20, the latter aspired and achieved the post of director of National Fish and Wildlife foundation. But a closer look at their schooling reveals how bullying and a stress on the importance of collateral superiority impacted both their world outlooks. The bullying regime at Springfield was merciless. Where his friend Bart was humiliated by Jimbo, Kearney, Nelson and Dolph, Milhouse too was victim to their primary bullying.  Nelson: I want you to keep filling your shirt with crud until I get back. Milhouse: Yes, sir. (Season 4, Episode 20.) But Milhouse also suffered secondary bullying by his supposed friend Bart. 'Hey, Bart. I shaved my head like you told me.' he says in Season 18, Episode 4. Though there is less television archive available for Patrick Henry High, conditions for the sensitive and God-fearing could hardly have been any better. A quick look at the school's alumni confirms a culture unsympathetic to the weak-chinned. Tony Atlas, bodybuilder and wrestler, Long Dong Silver, a well endowed actor, George Lynch of the NBA, and NFA professionals Chris Combs and Shannon Taylor. These names must have loomed as large for Wayne as those of Jimbo and his cronies at Springfield. Powerless, the hopes and dreams of Wayne and Milhouse would have shriveled at the prospect of competing. Milhouse had a crush on a mannikin in Banana Republic's window. He had become that 'lowest form of life, a sidekick' (Season 21 Episode 10). And despite the muscular reputation of the gun-toter with its poster image of a greased up Charlton Heston, it is to the weak that guns have their appeal. As Milhouse himself states prophetically in Season 18, Episode 11, an episode entitled Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Three Times,  "Having a weapon at school has really made things awesome." At a young age, poor, frightened Wayne must have come to the same solution. But Milhouse Van Houten and Wayne LaPierre are not thugs, as indicated by the extra capital letter and syllable of European provenance that each family appears to have awarded their surnames. Justification for taking up arms should rightfully be sought from the bookstore. Milhouse and Bart found the bible provided ample entitlement to use 'swears'. Wayne and his friends found the second amendment to the US constitution to be his source material for mandatory gun ownership. "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." What that means is that individuals should be able to defend themselves against the brutal, strong arm tactics of the over-endowed. Those school tyrants like Dawn Hochsprung and Victoria Soto who, over endowed with bravery and selflessness, faced down a lunatic with a Bushmaster .223 combat rifle. (Hell, if it wasn't for the campaigning work of Wayne LaPierre, such guns wouldn't even be available to the public.) OK, both gave their lives to save the lives of children that weren't even their own. But to the likes of Wayne and Milhouse, that just means they exceeded their authority, getting involved in the lives of others like those do-gooders in the media and the government. For that reason Wayne LaPierre felt he must speak out. The brave are imposing their liberal ideas on the weak.  And you know what that makes them? Nazi Communists.
Although to be fair, Milhouse is just a cartoon character.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Parade's End. The guns of the Great War drowned out by rustling CVs.

I don't know who this is but her face
came up when I googled Genoa Cake
I bought a piece of Genoa cake at a cafe in Guildford Railway station last month. Experiencing a traditional Northern Italian delicacy that had been processed through a nostalgia for  British transport infrastructure was, near as dammit, like watching the BBC's adaptation of Parade's End written by Tom Stoppard. Rich, odd, synthetic, not unpleasant and multi-layered; a hint of something from another era, processed and artificially preserved. The Genoa Cake fromGuildford Station reminded me of an era when British trains were nationalised, of sponge fingers, which are made in the same way as Genoa Cake, of visiting Genoa, of Dundee cake (another world cake option offered by British station cafes) and even (in a tumble of cake and railway memories) of visiting Dundee.

In turn, Parade's End reminded me distantly of avariciously reading Tom Stoppard in Margate Library as a teenager, of reading Parade's End in my 30s, of watching BBC costume dramas, of trying to avoid BBC dramas and of the many depictions of the first World War in print and film. All these references were constantly competing in a violently distracting way. And just as the cake was a combination of many loveable things strained through the many demands and limitations of a national rail network, Parade's End, for all its nourishing and distinguished components, feels like a mixture of everything I love, shat through the BBC.
You might have seen us in Tom's 'End'.  We were very good.

The pleasure of watching the beautifully considered storyline of Ford Madox Ford, who himself had served on the front line and lived through the breaking down of the old class order and the first light of the modern world, was dimmed by the cacophony of BBC departments vying for attention. Every shot of  Tietjens and Wannop wandering down a country lane was drowned out by the frenetic updating of CVs in the hedgerows. The hair department with its precisely researched wartime hair, the costume department with its weekends spent poring over wartime uniforms, the casting department straining to contain themselves until the camera cut so they could refer to 'Ben' being such inspired casting, so born for this role,  the title sequence with its arch triangular motif of mirrors. All were designed in competition with one another with an eye to the next job. The production was not for the reviewers, let alone the public. It was for the next job. For the 'Oh you did Parades' or 'Oh, you did 'End'. Or 'Oh you did Tom's thing.'  'I couldn't watch it myself, but you've got the job.'

The sheer Tom Stoppardliness of the dialogue was breathtaking. The plot, the era, the great war itself could have been designed for Tom to step up and do his thing. Blood has been shed so that this landmark production could be aired. Vistas of trenches and elegantly spaced denuded trees were lit by an arcing flare went straight on the showreels of D.O.P.s, flare designers and all others concerned, generating low, air conditioned coos of joy in the grading suites of Soho. Even the schedulers and the programme commissioners can dine out on these five slight episodes. The legendary triples are downed to stentorian proclamations as to the difficulty of condensing four novels into five portions. 

It is well directed, well acted, well designed, well written. But these things don't act alone.You don't watch The Godfather and squeal at how Maurice has done a marvelous job in aging-down that violin-case, because its production design renders the era subservient to to the characters. The dialogue in Treme or the BBC's own 1995 Pride and Prejudice is subservient to both the plot an characters. In Parade's End, the plot and characters serve the genius of the writer, creating a thin layer of stage buffoonery over them all. 'Oh Tom, you've contracted four chapters of the novel into a chambermaid scolding a pie-man. Marvelous!'

And he does, you know. But to use rare writing talent in this way is to miss somewhat the dramatic potential of the era. (Don't even start me on Downton Abbey.) Everything that's was once great about the BBC and that's perfect about Tom Stoppard, that's perfectly cast about Benedict Cumberbatch and that's brilliant about Betty in the wartime props department is right there on screen, yelling at you for approval. That's why there's no point dragging it out for more than five episodes. The abbreviation of the plot into scenes of intense brevity made the experience of watching it sometimes exhilarating, like Tom and Jerry. But everything that is stirring and soulful about the subject of the Great War, of the loss of a way of life, of the skylarks and the old pals, is buried under a deluge of flatulent BBC whizz-bangs. Five episodes are enough because this isn't a TV drama, it's a showreel, the real audience for which is not interested in anything but the credits at Parade's End's end.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Designers are ponytailed wankers right?

We get it.  You smoke.
Since legendary Godfather of stand up, Bill Hicks, said that anyone in marketing should kill themselves, "seriously, no joke, kill yourselves" it's been tough for us marketing/advertising/creative workers when we leave our offices to mix with ordinary people.

When we went to a comedy club, looking to unwind and steal jokes, we took it in good heart. We laughed along with the estate agents, Americans and racists in the crowd who were picked on for their assumed lack of scruples. Our entrance money was the same colour as everyone else's, explaining the racists' presence, so we smiled even while being collectively vilified. Like the craven opportunists we were portrayed to be, (accurately) (so that doesn't remotely qualify as a simile) we even laughed and looked round to see where these hapless marketing people, estate agents, Americans and racists might be sitting, thus covering our own embarrassment.
But one legacy of the London 2012 Olympic games and perhaps the most important, is to prove the true value of the creative wankers with their creme de menthe and stupid trousers.  True value as in making people happy.
And looking back, shortly after I watched Bill Hicks live at the Hackney Empire back in the 80s when he was alive - oh and by the way, how many Godfathers do you need, alternative  comedy? I have come across thousands of Godfathers mentioned casually by successful comedians and most seem to be little known names whose claim to the title of joint spiritual guide is based on being brave on stage, by not being funny enough.
But looking back from this post Olympic 2012 moment, when I can take lofty satisfaction in being part, at last, of a 'making people happy' industry, I don't understand why it's taken me so long to see the irony that it was Bill Hicks who went away from the show in which he instructed me to kill myself, and killed himself.  With cigarettes. Cigarettes which creative industry professionals like myself weren't allowed to advertise, so Bill Hicks can't even posthumously blame us for his early death. Although, to be fair to Bill Hicks, the supreme comedy craftsman of his era, he may have been attracted to the colourful pack designs.
For among the legions of la-di-da generators of tomtittery, none has been as publicly and as universally mocked as the design company Wolff Olins for its acidic London 2012 logos. The Daily Mail, the BBC, the man in the street, the woman in the headscarf and most painfully, like the very sheep they purport not to be, your stand up comedians, were united in their immense communal sneer.  'Why can't they just do it properly?'. Where are the Olympic rings, that's the famous things!' said the ordinary people.   'A child could do better!' said the Daily Mail, and readers sent in something better from their children to prove their point.  The BBC damned it with special smirks to camera, getting a retired design guru to mock it, then for balance got a risible oaf to defend it.
But the big game was not just to say that it looked fugly, but to let us all know what it looked like.  'It looks like a cat with two pelvises.' 'It looks like someone's been sick, but not in a toilet, somewhere funny, like a chessboard.' 'It looks like a bomb's gone off in a Chinese laundry', and before anyone could say, what the fuck are you talking about, we don't really have Chinese laundries any more and the London 2012 logo is far to clean in its lines and balanced as a composition to resemble the carnage and chaos that would follow such an event, they found themselves joining the laughter.
Yet the logo inspired much that was successful about the 2012 games, setting the tone and creating an energy, sure. But that would be just the bullshit part. Its fonts and colourways (ugh) made signage through one of the world's most confusing places, the London Underground system, outstandingly simple.  For millions. 
Something to do with Wolff Olins, 
The eye could immediately find its destination above the visual hubbub of a rail terminus, aided by the jerky type and silly colours. It also brought a kind of joy to the venues themselves.  The unmistakeable bright purple playing surfaces made every event feel like it was in some clean, virtual world, rather than the festering stink-hole that most venues, by virtue of their location and history, actually were. When you go through your volumes of Olympic games memorabilia, as you probably do periodically, London's will sing out among others. Take away the colour scheme, the creative energy of the London games and what will you will remember? The host nation doing well? That had nothing to do with Wolff Olins, but even the stand up comedians, even Bill Hicks, could not accuse a design company for not contributing enough to the training facilities of our Olympic hopefuls. So put aside the actual performances and the creative energy and you would have been left with what we all expected.  Expensive, elusive ticketing, empty seats, administrative cock ups, rampant, clumsy commercialism and two boy-faced men trying to out-appear the other in Olympic photographs.
So fuck off, stand up comedians, with your 'bits' and your 'callbacks', and the unexpected opening lines to your 'sets'.  You can run back to your Godfathers with your balloons between your legs.  

Saturday, 11 February 2012

We need to talk about the healthcare squirrels


Like banks, healthcare companies have decided it's time to display a surfeit of goodwill and caringness.  (see my earlier blog about banks' weird grinning ads here)  The freaky smiles in bank ads emote something along the lines of 'sorry we robbed you but we're all better now'.  But what's with Simplyhealth?  Their TV advertising was created by Airside in colours they describe as 'stretching the colour diodes on your TV screens to near-breaking point'. The world they create,  is one "where the notion of healthcare" is "conveyed in a caring and positive light."

They're not kidding. The rotoscoped images literally take real life and paint happy colours onto it. Their endline is the utterly bamboozling 'We can be bothered'. Talk about setting their standards low.  I mean, that's your message to your million customers?  Pay us enough and we will pick up the phone. 

Wait, wait, no. The 'can' is stressed. In my copywriting workshops (preen) I tell people that using stresses, inverted commas, underlinings and other affectations of intonation are a sign of weakness.  It shows you can't find the right words, so (ironically in this case) you didn't bother.  OK bad start.  

So the narrative of the ad shows healthy people in a perfect world being made even more healthy and perfect, assisted by squirrels. It's the garden of Eden. In summer.  The idea is to offer a perfect future healthcare world, unhampered by bad weather.  This Pollyanna view of life was confirmed for customer Adam Parker when he contacted them for a scan. He received a recorded message saying they'd all gone home due to bad weather.  His story is here.

So what is Simplyhealth?  It's the strangely timely merger of HSA, BCWA, Healthsure  LHF,  Totally Active and a couple of others. BCWA is the UK's oldest private health insurer, starting as a not for profit organisation before the NHS came along. It made good money in the early noughties, for example a 2.8 million surplus in 2003 which got ploughed back into patient care.  In the interests of choice (really?) these companies were brought together in 2009 under the leadership of Des Benjamin, who ran HSA by drawing on his 30 years experience in er, financial services. However, worries about ever decreasing choice in the healthcare market grew when Simplyhealth then took over Groupama in 2011.  

Groupama were also a highly regarded provider, in particular for their record of claims transparency. The chairman of the Association of Medical Insurance Intermediaries said here: "Our initial reaction is extreme disappointment that a quality provider with a focus of claims transparency, and exceptional service may disappear with all its values and principles".  Simplyhealth said that while they CAN be bothered in general, they probably wouldn't bother so much with claims transparency thing.  Not so keen on enabling competition and choice.

I've ruled out Lupus
But Simplyhealth ploughed on, finishing the year by acquiring Denplan from AXA and are now the UK's largest private health insurance company. So back to the ad.

The caring, sorry bothering, that the campaign espouses is the unctuous tip of a mindfulness iceberg. Bothering is the company ethos through all media. The incident referred to above, where Simplyhealth closed up shop in a cold snap, just when people's healthcare needs were likely to rise, ended with a barrage of scraping and bowing. The customer was pursued through social media  and bothered about till he agreed he had been cared for. A comment on his blog concluded for us that the case just proved that Simplyhealth really really can be bothered after all. Hmmm-wonder who put that there. Des Benjamin talks about his commitment to service impressively too, attributing it to his experience as a kitchen porter. In PR, Social media, TV, they're caring. They've won a caringness award, they give to local charities, sponsor Secret Millionaire and bothery attitudes pervade their public statements. A Simplyhealth report says companies should be given tax breaks to give health insurance to the lower paid employees, not just the wealthy ones. (Well, when they say 'give', I think they mean 'buy from Simplyhealth'.) But another finds the shocking stat that 45% of British people suspect they will be denied treatment by the NHS following the Coalition reforms.

I think we can see what's going on. The CEO and other Simplyhealth spokespeople are candid in their narrative that they are getting ready for the coming changes in UK's health system, about which they seemed to have remarkable foresight in 2009. One even mentions future lower funding for the NHS, a policy that hasn't been launched yet by the Coalition. Simplyhealth's thesis is revealed. Caring is what the NHS will no longer provide. Hence the mangled and ominous endline. Simplyhealth, unlike the future NHS can be bothered. Or rather CAN be bothered. So long as it's not winter. It's the squirrels, see, they hibernate.