Thursday, 8 November 2012

Discovering sediment

When it comes to the noble grape, I'm neither a connoisseur nor an utter philistine. I quite like the odd drop of the stuff and can, I think, tell the difference between a decent, quaffable wine and paint stripper. I have also, over the years, managed to perfect the art of concealing one's feelings when discovering the latter in polite company. My father-in-law, one of the most charming individuals one could wish to encounter in life, has an unfortunate propensity to serve wine that is, how shall I put it, well past its sell-by date. To make matters worse, there is always a preamble to the pouring. This will usually entail a colourful anecdote or two regarding the acquisition of said bottle from a particularly remote chateaux located well off the beaten track. 

Anyway, I digress. The purpose of this post is to draw the reader's attention to a rather good blog that I stumbled upon by chance. Entitled Sediment it has been crafted by two delightful if slightly Edwardian characters who go by the monikers: CJ and PK. The pair wouldn't be out of place in Jerome K Jerome's famous boat. While CJ has a penchant for anything vaguely crimson and is in constant search of that elusive  bargain from the likes of Lidl or Waitrose, PK aspires to far greater things. But the point about this blog isn't the fact that it's informative, which it undoubtedly is, so much as its entertainment value. Indeed, you don't have to be a wine buff to appreciate the musings of this droll double-act.

By way of a taster (no pun intended), here's a line from CJ's recent post: 'So I look at the wine rack in the kitchen the other day, and there is a bottle in it which I have no recollection of purchasing. It's normally pretty easy to see what's in the rack and what's not, because the rack (as a rule) has almost nothing in it on account of me drinking everything before it gets a chance to stop moving, let alone age in a horizontal position.'

And to be even-handed, here's a delicious sample from PK's account of supping wine in the company of His Holiness, the Archbishop of Canterbury: 'You pass through the Palace doorway, and realise you must be in the company of good people, because the cloakroom lacks not only an attendant, but any kind of numbering or security system. Who indeed would steal from the house of an Archbishop? (Apart from a King or two…)'

If, like me, you like a good read and aren't averse to having the funny bone well and truly tickled, immerse yourself in the world of CJ and PK. It could become something of an addictive habit. 

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Monday, 5 November 2012

In praise of the NHS

We blokes tend to to get a little more focused on our health when we pass our half century. And if it's not us, it's invariably our wives, partners or GPs who do the focusing. Two years ago while having my annual check-up with the local doctor, he brought up the dreaded subject of the prostate. Though it wasn't troubling me, I had to admit that my visits to the bathroom during the night had been creeping in an upwards direction. Since I had private medical insurance through my company, it seemed like a simple matter, or so I thought, to get it checked out. 

My GP pointed me in the direction of "the best man in London." Without wanting to name names, the man selected for the job runs a swish private clinic in one of London's smartest locations well known to the private medical fraternity. There followed a succession of consultations culminating in a thoroughly unpleasant procedure dubbed a cystoscopy. This procedure involves an ingenious microscope being passed through the urethra into the bladder under a local anaesthetic. 'The best man in London' who is a thoroughly likeable sort, if a little gung ho, reassured me that this procedure is akin to a "walk in the park." To cut a long story short, I've had many very pleasant walks in the park; but this most certainly wasn't one of them. The upshot was that my condition required surgery to remove a small obstruction caused by the prostate. 

Following further consultations, the consultant recommended green light laser surgery at the Edward VII hospital, an establishment favoured by the Royal Family, no less. The operation went ahead and I was in hospital for three nights. On coming home my condition, if anything, became worse, and as a result, countless consultations were arranged and further tests undergone. Now, I should mention here that private medical insurance is hopeless when it comes to 'day care'. When you're being seen by 'the best man in London' you'll be paying something in the region of £150 to simply exchange pleasantries. Should you need any tests or examinations, this figure will soon escalate. Bearing in mind that policies will only provide around £1,000 of cover per year for day care, you really are woefully underinsured - as indeed I was. To add insult to injury, the fees for surgery were in my consultant's case so high that my insurance policy with AXA didn't even cover the full amount. So besides being out of sorts, I was also out of pocket.

After a year of getting nowhere very fast, I decided to ask 'the best man in London' for a referral to see someone on the NHS. He pointed me towards a colleague at Barnet General. 

Now this bloke wasn't at all gung ho. In fact, he was fairly brusque and to the point. "Well Mr Pearl", he inferred. "Call me old fashioned, but I won't touch green light surgery. In fact, I don't allow it here. Seen too many patients presenting with your kind of symptoms following laser treatment. Doesn't work I'm afraid."

Instead he suggested a cystoscopy to have a good look. When I turned a shade of green, he was perfectly understanding. "Oh don't worry. I don't blame you in the least. I'll arrange for you to have it under general anaesthetic." Until this moment, I hadn't realised that this was even an option - thinking foolishly that general anaesthetics weren't lavished on walks in parks.

The procedure came and went and I was eventually advised to have a conventional bladder neck incision to alleviate my symptoms.

I have just returned from Chase Farm hospital. It's early days and it remains to be seen if the operation has succeeded. But I have to say that my experience on the NHS, though one I wouldn't want to repeat in a hurry, was outstanding in every respect.The nurses were brilliant and the level of care incredibly attentive.

Now, I'm not saying that my private consultant wasn't up to the job. It's more than likely that he genuinely felt that laser treatment was the right way to go. But I can't help wondering whether going on the NHS from the start might have saved me an awful lot of time, trouble and money - not to mention a thoroughly unnecessary and unpleasant  walk in the park.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Railwayman

It was with sadness that I switched on the radio last week to learn of the death of Eric Lomax at the age of 93.

His remarkably powerful book, The Railwayman was excruciatingly hard to read in places, and must have been even more painful for Lomax to have written.

It charts his harrowing experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war in 1942. Captured in Singapore, he was a prisoner at the Kanchaanaburi camp in Thailand. Here guards were to discover Lomax's homemade radio for which he and his cell mates were subjected to the most horrific torture. During these nightmare episodes his English speaking interpreter would repeatedly demand that he confess to espionage. But knowing that if he did he'd be summarily executed, he remained steadfast.

Like so many victims of torture, Lomax's experiences haunted him in later life and eventually contributed to the break-up of his marriage. It was only after remarrying in 1983 that he was to get help from the then newly formed Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. And it was here that he came across a press cutting from the Japan Times that told of an ex-Japanese soldier's quest to help the Allies locate the graves of their dead; a task for which he claimed he had earned their forgiveness. To Lomax's astonishment, the ex-soldier in question was none other than Takashi Nagase, the interpreter who had presided during his torture sessions all those years ago. For the next two years Lomax carried this crumpled piece of paper around with him but did nothing until he eventually acquired a translation of Nagase's memoir in which his former interrogator explained how shame had led him to build a Buddhist shrine beside the infamous 418 mile railway line to Burma built by Allied slave labour. And only then it was Lomax's wife Patti who contacted Nagase. "How", she asked, "can you feel 'forgiven' if this particular Far Eastern prisoner-of-war has not yet forgiven you?" It was enough to bring the two men together after more than half a century. For the remainder of their lives these two men were to forge the closest of friendships.

In 1996, Lomax published his memoir entitled The Railwayman. The film based on the book is due for release next year with Colin Firth in the title role.

Eric Lomax was born on May 30 1919 and died on October 8 2011. He is survived by a son and daughter.
Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Time to apologise for this ludicrous apology

It's ironic that the GrĂ¼nenthal Group, the German company behind the thalidomide tragedy of the 1950s and 60s, should choose to make a half-hearted apology to its surviving victims during the Paralympics 2012 - the world's largest stage for athletes with disabilities.

While the nation has pulled together and come out in huge numbers to admire and support these remarkable athletes, there has been much talk about the positive spin-off of the paralympics in terms of making this country more caring for those with disabilities.

So against this backdrop, this rather disingenuous apology 50 years after the event comes like a kick in the teeth. And it has understandably annoyed the Thalidomide Agency UK, which has campaigned tirelessly for victims of the drug. This morning I woke up to hear thalidomide survivor, Nick Dobrik speak most articulately on Radio 4's Today programme. "An apology", he said, "should be an unreserved apology and not a conditional apology. It is strange when a company gives an apology which is not the truth. We feel that a sincere and genuine apology is one which actually admits wrongdoing. The company has not done that and has really insulted the thalidomiders."

The drug which was supposed to cure morning sickness was never properly put through its drug trials and many at the time were critical. And it wasn't until 1961 when an Australian doctor, William McBride, wrote to the Lancet after noticing an increase in deformed babies being born at his hospital to mothers who had taken thalidomide, that alarm bells started to ring. The drug was removed from the market later that year.

It took another seven years before any compensation was paid out in the UK by the distributer Distillers Biochemicals Limited (now Diageo). And this was only because Harold Evans, then editor of the Sunday Times, had launched a campaign on behalf of the sufferers. This said, the compensation figure finally reached was derisory - just £28 million.

There are no fewer than 458 people in this country suffering with the after-effects of one company's criminal incompetence, and the cost to adapt each and every one of these victim's lives must run into frightening numbers. But more significantly, let us not forget those who didn't survive. It is estimated that for every thalidomide survivor, at least ten babies were killed by the drug before or after birth.

So perhaps now, while the world's eyes are on the paralympians, this would be a good time for GrĂ¼nenthal chief executive Harald Stock to put his company's money where his mouth is and make a genuine, heartfelt apology.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Sunday, 26 August 2012

America's reluctant hero

I knew back then that it was a momentous occasion. I was ten years of age and this was the first time
my parents had actually allowed me to stay up late in pyjamas and dressing gown to join them and my elder brother around the rented black and white television set. Annoyingly, this wasn't to watch 'The Avengers' or the outrageous 'Till Death Us Do Part', but something far more surreal: a fuzzy art-house type film of a cratered landscape badly choreographed to electronic bleeps and unintelligible American voices.

The moon landing of 1969 was watched on television by a staggering 500 million people worldwide. The immortal words uttered by Neil Armstrong as his boot touched the lunar landscape were his own, and have now become iconic. Though the clunky technology of 1969 was unable to transmit the phrase perfectly. The word 'a' before 'man' was lost in the ether, so 500 million heard the less than perfect: "That's a small step for... man. One giant leap for mankind." Armstrong was sure that he'd said the line in full and computer technology some years later was to prove him right.

More impressively though, Neil Armstrong managed to avert disaster moments before the lunar module touched down. Believing that the craft was heading directly for what looked like an unsafe landing area, he took over the manual controls and landed it safely further afield with no more than 45 seconds of fuel to spare.

Armstrong was originally chosen by NASA management as the commander of the mission on account of his lack of ego, and it's remarkable looking back on his extraordinary achievment that this modest and private man should have so consciously shunned the limelight for so many years following the historic touch-down. And let us not forget the incredible bravery of this three-man crew including Buz Aldrin and Michael Collins. For the risks these three faced were immense, and the chances of never returning to Earth very real.

Yesterday it was announced that Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon, died at the age of 82 due to complications following heart surgery. President Obama paid tribute to his achievement by describing him as "one of the greatest American heroes of all time." It's an epithet that may have made Neil Armstrong shudder. And I suspect that it is this aversion to celebrity that will cement his place in the history books, because if history teaches us anything it's that the world's most reluctant heroes receive the biggest standing ovations, the biggest send-offs, the biggest obituaries; and in Neil Armstrong's case, deservedly so.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Monday, 13 August 2012

Crappy packaging for fags

First we had the introduction of health warnings followed by the banning of cinema and press advertising. Now the government is looking at following the Australians and introducing standardized plain packaging for all cigarette brands.

The tobacco industry not surprisingly is up in arms. While most people seem to think that it won't make a jot of difference, the fag makers fear the worst. Packaging is, after all, the last vestige of sophistication that this industry can cling on to. If this goes, then surely cigarettes will be sunk forever. Personally, I think they do have grounds for worrying, because image for this lot has always been everything. Though health warnings are now emblazoned in large type, the packaging still looks and feels classy, desirable and expensive; that's because it is. Silk varnishes, foil blocking and embossing, along with the services of leading design agencies, don't come cheap.

Way back in the 80s when I first became interested in advertising, I remember visiting Collette Dickenson Pearce in the Euston Road and being shown the agency showreel on the agency's very own big screen. If memory serves me right there were two cinema commercials for cigarettes. One for Benson and Hedges was shot by Ridley Scott in the Arizona Desert, and featured frogmen opening a giant sardine tin-like cigarette pack in a swimming pool. It was part of the award-winning surreal campaign that never failed to silence popcorn munching audiences at the local flea-pit. The other was equally effective: an amusing spoof testimonial set amid the battle of Rorke's Drift with zulus and redcoats being speared left, right and centre. They were brilliantly effective ads because they made the brands captivating, witty and sophisticated. To young audiences, cigarettes were clearly shown to be cool. And the sales figures corroborated this.

Since the banning of cigarette advertising, the number of teen smokers in the UK has halved. It's a pretty impressive statistic. The anti-smoking lobby believes firmly that this has everything to do with the advertising ban. There are those representing the pro-smoking lobby though who will tell you otherwise. They'll argue that it has more to do with education and the fact that we're all so much better off than we used to be. I don't believe this for a moment. Tobacco companies spent millions on advertising and packaging because they knew full well that it guaranteed their future by making cigarettes look sophisticated to the young.

Interestingly, my 18-year-old daughter takes the view that placing cigarettes in plain brown packaging will give them a kind of cult status in the same way as any banned substances will appeal to those who want to stick two fingers up at the establishment. I suppose it's just possible, but I can't see this having mass appeal. 

I think if I were the minister for health I'd ban the use of the word 'cigarettes' and insist that fag makers used the term 'cancer sticks' instead.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Chicago is my kind of town

Advertising is a funny old business. I should know, I've been employed as a copywriter for more years than I'd care to remember. But one of the perks, if you happen to work for a large international agency, is the opportunity to occasionally work abroad.

Not so long ago I took a business trip at the last minute to Chicago.Our Creative Director's PA who was frighteningly efficient managed to arrange a flight for my working partner and myself to fly American Airlines the next morning, first thing. Better still, when the following morning dawned and my colleague and I shuffled, bleary-eyed, to the check-in desk at Heathrow, we were, for some unfathomable reason, upgraded from Business to First Class. So the pair of us in our tee shirts and jeans traipsed over to the First Class Departure Lounge to take our place among the dapper suited businessmen.

It was a good start to what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable business trip. This was largely down to the fact that we hadn't been asked to the Chicago office to produce any creative work. Instead we had been invited to take part in an advertising awards scheme. Let me explain: advertising agencies are obsessed with winning industry awards to demonstrate to potential clients and the world at large how brilliantly clever they are at selling stuff in a creative and intelligent way.

Now, as it happens, this rather large global agency for whom I worked (and I won't name names) didn't have a terribly good track record in this department, so not to be outdone, some bright spark in the New York office had suggested the idea of creating an awards scheme just for the agency's own offices around the globe. This way the agency could award itself the awards it so desperately craved. Brilliant.

So there we were, locked in a room with representatives of the creative departments from New York, Paris, Milan, Barcelona and Helsinki, deliberating over a bunch of ads and direct mail pieces which had been submitted by all the offices in the network in the hope of winning one of these fabulous awards. I might add here that the awards themselves had been created at great expense and did look rather splendid.

The very good news, however, was that judging would only take place in the morning, and following lunch, we'd be free to explore the Windy City before flying back home.

As a result, we wasted little time in setting off for the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower). From its 103rd floor you can walk around its Skydeck, 1,353 feet up, and take in the most spectacular views of this majestic city of handsome skyscrapers set against the backdrop of the vast Lake Michigan, and the surrounding areas of Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

Back at street level we headed for the famous Marshall Fields department store (now Macy's). I'm not a keen shopper but this building is well worth a visit. The store can trace its heritage back to 1880 and this lovely building was completed in 1906. On the top floor there is an impressive and rather touching plaque proudly displaying the names of all employees who had completed 50 years of loyal service. The list is remarkably long.

As for those advertising awards, I remember very little indeed.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

No Gold Medals for Team GD

Graphic Design is a subject I studied many years ago at art college. I suppose back then I was inspired by the world of inventive visual ideas, and it's probably why I ended up entering the world of advertising as a copywriter where the creative idea is king. I have always held the view that intelligent graphic design has to abide by four simple rules:

1) It has to convey an appealing idea that encapsulates its subject's essence
2) It has to be universally understood
3) It has to be readable
4) It has to be aesthetically pleasing

And I would apply these simple rules to all forms of graphic design, whether we're looking at a book jacket, postage stamp or logo.

Now that the Olympics are looming, it occurs to me that none of my four simple rules can receive a single tick when it comes to the logo for said games.

This logo, which was created by Wolff Olins for the cost of £400,000 "isn't a logo", according to Lord Coe. "It's a brand that will take us forward for the next five years." As for it not being a logo, I couldn't agree more. The date 2012 rendered like a piece of graffiti does not, in my humble opinion, encapsulate the spirit of the world's most prestigious games. And in the light of the rioting across the nation not so long ago, I'm not sure that the association with graffiti and urban decay is one the games should want to embrace.

Then, of course, there's the legibility issue. A simple piece of market research would have made it plain as daylight that most people can't read the bloody thing. But having said this, why do we need to be reminded that it's 2012 anyway?

Finally, there's the question of its aesthetic appeal, which will always draw a subjective response. Here's mine: it's bloody ugly.  

I'm instantly reminded of those immortal words uttered by the late William Hill, founder of the betting empire, who on casting an eye over the latest creative offering from his advertising agency, declared bluntly: "Call that an advert? I could do better with my nob and a pot of paint."  

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Beware the psychotherapist of Berkhamsted

He was a perfectly credible character: bespectacled, reasonably well dressed, somewhere in his early 50s. He sidled up to me as I struggled with my bag having stepped out of East Finchley underground station.

"I'm terribly sorry, I really don't know how to put this." He looked flustered. "I've just visited one of my clients; I'm a psychotherapist, and I've just had my wallet stolen." I immediately offered my sympathy, but he wasn't looking for sympathy. "I have to get to Berkhamsted and I need £15. I hate to ask you this, but can you possibly lend me the fare? I'm really sorry."

At this point, alarm bells began to ring in the back of my brain. I stammered something incomprehensible.

"Look, I know what you're thinking, but let me assure you..." He paused. Then came his killer line, his unique selling proposition: "Do you know Lawrence at the bakery on Market Place?" As a reasonably loyal customer of said bakery, I did know Lawrence well enough to know his name. He's a genial and affable sort; the kind of person you wouldn't think twice about helping. "I'm his brother", he exclaimed.

It was, of course, the most brilliant line. How on earth could I ever let myself not help Lawrence's brother in his hour of need? I wouldn't be able to live with myself. I envisaged Lawrence telling me about his poor brother getting mugged in this leafy London suburb, his failure to elicit the help of a passer-by, and my feeble attempt at feigning surprise and disgust.

I pulled £15 out of my wallet and thrust it into his palm. "Please let me have your mobile number and I'll arrange to pay you back", he said, and pulled an old-fashioned mobile from his pocket and dialled my number into the phone.

As soon as he'd turned in the direction of the station I knew instinctively that I'd never hear from this stranger ever again. I knew in my heart of hearts that I'd been had, been diddled, and for a moment I felt stupid and gullible. But then again, had I refused, I'd have felt mean spirited, callous and inhuman. But by the time I returned home I had put the whole thing out of my mind.

It wasn't until a few weeks later, while on the phone to my brother, that I was reminded of the incident. "A strange thing happened to me on the way home the other day", I said. "A complete stranger managed to wangle fifteen quid out of me in a few seconds. Said he was a psychotherapist and had just been mugged."

"What did he look like?" came my brother's swift response.

"He was in his 50s, well spoken, thinning hair, fairly innocuous I'd say."

"He wasn't going to Berkhamsted was he?"

"Bloody hell, how did you know?"

"I don't believe it, I got diddled by the same bugger last week coming out of the Wigmore Hall."

On hearing this, I have to say that I felt a great deal less stupid. Anyone who can pull a fast one on my elder brother has to be pretty bloody good. This guy knew exactly how to make his victims search their own souls and question their own sense of compassion and fair play.

I have since learned that this particular confidence trickster has taken in a number of well respected journalists. So if by chance a respectable, well dressed man should approach you in the street and ask politely for £15 to get to Berkhamsted, I'd urge you to administer a sharp, well aimed knee in the knackers and continue on your way.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Poet's and Peasants' XI

If you have read ‘England their England’ by A G Macdonell you will be familiar with the famous description of a village cricket match set in the home counties during the 1920s. It’s one of those quintessentially English pastimes that has barely changed since the Edwardian era. And I say this from experience.

Back in the days when I barely had a grey hair on my head, my older brother and a good friend decided over a few beers to form a cricket club, despite the fact that neither were particularly skilled exponents of the noble game. However, the idea was enthusiastically put about and within a matter of days, enough friends and friends of friends had expressed a keen interest to join.

My brother, being a lawyer, drew up a constitution which was duly presented to all those who had promised their support, and at the first ever meeting, which took place at The Cheshire Cheese public house in Fleet Street, certain key decisions were put to the vote. As a result, the cricket club was to be named the Poet’s and Peasants’; the official club colours were to be Green (for the grass), blue (for the sky) and gold (for the beer); and most importantly, the club was going to have to appoint a Poet. After much discussion, it was decided that Mr Alan Gibson (now sadly no longer with us), who was at that time writing a regular column for the Times newspaper would be the most suitable candidate to approach on the basis that his pieces captured the spirit of the game and were arguably some of the wittiest to be found in any of the nation’s sports pages. So a letter was drafted, agreed upon and posted to Mr Gibson.

Within a week Mr Gibson responded, and in the most charming terms accepted the honour of having the title Club Poet bestowed upon him, on the one condition that at the beginning of each season, a bottle of the finest malt whisky would be dispatched to him forthwith.

On this basis we had secured an eminent poet even though we didn’t have our own ground, or for that matter, much cricketing nous. Indeed, many of the founding members were professional musicians who were paranoid about their fingers, and refused point blank to field anywhere near the batsman for fear of damaging their precious Phalanges and Metacarpals. One Chris D Freeman, a double bass player, would field the ball with any part of his body except his hands and managed quite miraculously during one memorable game to take a catch between his knees. Needless to say, the poor batsman thought he was seeing things.

We got to play on some truly pretty village grounds. One such ground in Kent was the home of the Coddrington Cobblers. Like the Peasants, they were a very weak but enthusiastic team of delightful individuals, and before the match began one of their players confided that very few of their matches ever continued beyond the tea session. It soon became apparent why this should be, for in place of boundary markers were substantial barrels of local beer which the fielding side could enjoy at their leisure between overs. Seeing that we had plenty of musicians fielding on the boundary, much of the ale was consumed during the course of play (I’ve yet to meet a musician who doesn’t like a jar or five). And as it turned out, the tea was by no means the usual curled up sandwiches and stewed tea. No, instead the wives and partners of the Cobblers had prepared a feast of gargantuan proportions. So it was very much a case of food and drink stopped play.

The Poet’s and Peasants’ went on to enjoy ten consecutive seasons, including three tours in Devon, and during this time many colourful characters had at one time or other played for us.

There was the eccentric and brilliant historian Ronald Hutton (now Professor Hutton); the late John Macleod, a wonderful batsman and baritone who also happened to be the Laird of Skye; the club’s original co-founder, Bramwell Tovey (now the composer and Artistic Director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra), Thos Hodgson, a talented all-rounder (now a distinguished barrister in Sydney, Australia); Jonathan Milner a very fine batsman (now also a distinguished barrister, but over here); Tony Jenkins, our opening batsman and talented golfer who also drove trains on the London Underground; Oliver Heald (now a Conservative MP); Peter Greenhouse (now an eminent consultant in sexual heath); and of course Chris D Freeman who still plays double bass and was in fact the only member of the club to have his name appear in Wisden magazine, thanks to a piece written by our esteemed poet, the late Alan Gibson.

These days, every time I find myself driving through a village on a summer’s afternoon and pass the village green with its men in white flannels and that inimitable sound of leather on willow, I think back to those days of the Peasants, and for a second I feel a twinge of jealousy.

Photograph (from left standing): Stephen Greenhough, John McLeod, Nick Patrick, 
Chris Freeman, Mike Iland (Seated): Alex Pearl, Tony Garrett, David Pearl, Bob Collins, 
Mike O'Donell, Bramwell Tovey

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Friday, 20 January 2012

Not the ideal way to spend Christmas Eve

I was asked recently, while playing one of those silly board games after a couple of glasses of very drinkable Rioja, to describe the most embarrassing situation I've ever found myself in. I imagine we could all dredge up something from the past, but in my case, there were only two incidents that immediately sprung to mind.

The first was when I took a summer holiday job while at school as the mail-room assistant in a fairly stuffy firm of solicitors off Fleet Street. On my first day, having delivered mail to all the senior partners, I distinctly remember, to my embarrassment, hastily making an exit through a rather large broom cupboard. This was probably the funniest thing that those solicitors had ever witnessed, judging from the guffaws and bursts of uncontrollable laughter that ensued. To be the focus of attention for all the wrong reasons feels utterly humiliating if you're a spotty adolescent with very little self-confidence. It was, I have to admit, a horribly embarrassing experience.

But possibly less embarrassing though far more surreal, was the Guy Norris Christmas Eve episode, which took place the following year. Guy Norris was the name of a record shop I used to frequent in Gants Hill where I lived as a teenager with my parents. Unlike most kids who were into The Stranglers or Sex Pistols, I was into Joseph Haydn, and had set myself the hair-brained mission to collect every one of his 106 symphonies on vinyl. And it was over one particular Christmas Eve that I found myself riffling through the record shop's entire collection of classical music in search of the maestro’s early works - a search that turned up very little. So disappointedly, I trudged to the entrance and pulled the door, and in the process nearly yanked my arm off. The door wouldn't budge for good reason; it had been locked and the lights had been left on, along with the Christmas tree lights which twinkled away merrily.

When you are 15 years of age and locked in a record shop on Christmas Eve, you are faced with a difficult dilemma: do you knock manically on the glass window to attract the passers-by who may just think you're part of a rather novel Christmas display, or do you spare yourself the embarrassment and just sit it out until New Year? It was a tough one, but thankfully, I was saved by a third option in the form of a telephone, which sat on the counter.

Having spoken to my father, who then spoke to the police, who then spoke to the manager, who then went in search of the caretaker who was no doubt in his local boozer knocking back a pre-Christmas pint, it took another three hours before I was released from my temporary prison.

Funnily enough, I didn't listen to much Haydn after that.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

A peculiar kind of brand loyalty

We advertising copywriters are often accused of perverting what skills we have to merely flog a load of fairly dodgy merchandise that nobody in their right mind would ever consider parting money for. To some extent I suppose there is a grain of truth here. I have, in my time, had the dubious pleasure of writing ads for real stinkers. I won't name names but suffice it to say that I have written for at least one truly appalling motor car, more than one disastrous investment fund, a pretty horrid soft drink, a particularly unpleasant lager, a fairly unreliable brand of boiler, a telecoms company whose wireless routers are utterly hopeless... I could go on.

But the sad truth is that it isn't just members of the unsuspecting public who have the wool pulled over their eyes. You see, before any copywriter worth his salt can embark on the task of creating an idea and putting pen to paper, or indeed, fingers to keyboard, he has to immerse himself in the world of his client's. This invariably means visiting factories, warehouses or call centres, and experiencing the brand first hand. And, of course, to write convincingly and passionately about anything, whether it be a boiled sweet or a dirty lump of coal, a copywriter has to embrace it wholeheartedly and have utmost faith and confidence in it.

In my case, this has meant buying into the product quite literally. So I can now confess that I too have been gullible enough to believe my own advertising, and for years, have put up with investments that have gone nowhere other than downwards, temperamental cars that have decided to stop working on the North Circular, boilers that have quite literally blown up, and theme parks that, well, even my kids wouldn’t touch with the longest of barge poles.

So the next time someone infers at a dinner party or social gathering that those employed in the shady world of marketing are no better than brainwashers employed by the Moonies, I shall have to point out that some of the world’s biggest victims of advertising, aren’t members of the public, but the poor sods who write the ads in the first place.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds