Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The homeless commercial that's yet to find a home

Just over a year ago my old friend John Mac (who featured in my last piece) called me at home in a state of excitement. "Alex, can we meet up? I'd like to run an idea past you." John is a professional advertising photographer and is without doubt one of the most energetic and impulsive people I've ever known. He's also incredibly talented both artistically and technically when it comes to producing beautifully lit shots for some of the world's most iconic brands.

We met in one of Soho's many watering holes and here he explained that he wanted to shoot a commercial to raise awareness of the homeless in the UK, and donate the finished film to any homeless charity in the UK that wanted to use it. He had recently been given a professional video camera to look after and was keen to put it through its paces.

"I have this idea in my head of a beautifully lit black and white film noir piece shot in the style of an early Roman Polanski. We see an attractive girl running away, and we can hear her terrified thoughts. But we can't understand a word she's saying because she's foreign. And that's the point. We all think we know what homeless people look like. But we don't have the faintest idea." He looked me in the eye. "I think there's something in it. What do you reckon?"

I liked the intriguing nature of the idea, but knew that it would rely entirely on  the power of a superimposed copyline that could encapsulate the idea and make sense of this otherwise incomprehensible piece of drama, and I said as much.

"Couldn't agree more, mate. That's the reason I wanted to get you involved." John finished his pint. "Don't suppose you could write us a line could you, and some dialogue? I'd like to do a casting next week. All being well."

It's not the conventional way one would normally approach such a project. Usually there'd be an official briefing with an account director and planner; there'd be a written brief; an agreed marketing strategy and a creative proposition to reflect the strategy. But John had come up with his own strategy and creative proposition in one fell swoop. And it went something like this: tell people that homelessness can affect anyone, and challenge pre-conceived ideas about the kinds of people who become homeless through no fault of their own.

As far as I was concerned, it was a reasonable proposition. And in John's hands I knew that it would be a compelling piece of film. So I slept on it and penned a line in the morning.
Sarah-Laure Estragnat

Casting took place the following week at the Soho Hotel, and John was keen for me to attend. He had been through a list of drama school students who were fluent in at least one other language and had selected a handful for the part. Following that one casting there was only one he felt could do the piece justice. But even then he wasn't 100% convinced. And then, as is so often the case when working with John, he had a piece of good luck. One of his make-up artists from Paris called him to say that her best friend, the young French actress, Sarah-Laure Estragnat was in town. John isn't one to miss an opportunity. Within a couple of days he'd arranged a meeting in Maida Vale, and with a digital recorder in hand we did a few test readings. She was brilliant and didn't need any directing.

John spent the next few days doing a recce. Locations would revolve around Woolwich tunnel, Borough market and Waterloo. Sarah-Laure would return to London in two weeks and shooting would take place over two evenings from around 8.00pm to 2.00am. All he needed was a small crew to help with lighting and a make-up artist. (As it turned out this wasn't to be Sarah-Laure's Parisian friend but John's long-standing make-up lady, Anne-Marie Simak.)

I attended the second night of shooting around Borough market. It was fascinating to see John at work on a film, frenetically waving directions to his actor and lighting men. The locations he had selected were particularly atmospheric, especially in black and white. And shooting each scene from different angles was fairly intense. Sarah-Laure was incredibly professional, following every instruction to the letter. Some scenes would be shot umpteen times, and it was distinctly chilly. This was November after all.

At one point, a young couple canoodling in an archway had inadvertently found themselves in one of John's immaculately framed scenes, and he wasn't too happy about it, so he prized himself away from his camera and stormed over to the offending couple. "I'm sorry, but can I ask you to do that somewhere else? We're filming." The couple looked a little startled, giggled and shuffled off in search of another dark corner away from prying eyes. John came back to his camera beaming and chuckling to himself. "Nice night for it." And that was about the only short break in the proceedings.

I took my leave of them at around midnight. It was exhausting just watching all this nervous energy.

A couple of days later John sent me his rough cut. To my eyes it looked perfect, with each short set-up flowing seamlessly into the next. And, of course, the lighting had John's inimitable fingerprints all over it. Final editing, grading and dubbing were completed by Vee Pinot, Matthew Lee-Redman and Zak Kurtha over at Hogarth Post-Production.

The upshot is that this commercial received a great deal of praise from a number of senior figures from various national charities. One in particular (which will remain nameless) loved it, but was unable to screen it for certain "political reasons" which it wasn't prepared to divulge. And as we speak, no other homeless charity has wanted to make use of this free commercial, which John had kindly produced as a favour.

In a recession, it's rather bizarre that charities are happy to employ designers and advertising agencies for which they have significant budgets; and yet turn away free advertising when it comes their way. A case of charities turning their noses up at charity perhaps?

You can see the commercial below:

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Bit of a ladies' man

Vilna, 1900
There's something captivating about digging up the past, and I suppose it explains why the TV series 'Who Do You Think You Are?' has proved to be such a hit. It's human nature, after all, to be curious about our forebears; to know who they were, how they made their way through life, and perhaps most importantly, if they shared some of our own human traits and foibles.

In my own case, digging very deep is particularly difficult, since both my paternal and maternal lineages stretch back to Russia at the turn of the century, and most records were destroyed in the upheaval of the Bolshevik revolution and the overthrow of czarist rule.

It's a shame, because there are fragments of a shattered past that are intriguing to say the least.

My father's grandparents owned orchards and were inn keepers in or near Vilna, and by all accounts had a relatively comfortable life, until, that is, the Pogroms swept the country. As Jews, their lives would have been thrown into turmoil and in a desperate attempt to escape the violence they, like so many others in the same predicament, fled, leaving everything behind. In doing so they boarded a ship which they mistakenly believed to be bound for New York, but was actually destined for Liverpool.

Today one of my cousins has a handful of sepia prints of our forebears in Russia. Draped in sartorial, silk robes and sporting long, distinguished beards, they peer out of their brown tinged world; a world that was not to last.

I remember my late father talking about his own father recounting his childhood: "Father had a happy childhood," he used to say, "and would often fondly reminisce in old age how much he had enjoyed playing in his parents' orchards as a boy."

Of my mother's Russian lineage, I know next to nothing, other than the fact that one of her grandparents was both deaf and dumb and had settled in Whitechapel. The mind boggles.

Some months ago the subject of genealogy surfaced while sitting in a Turkish bistro in Soho with my old mate John Mac. John, a photographer by trade, began to tell me about his own grandfather who died before he was born, but whose wife he knew well and remembers fondly as 'nan.'

"He was a hugely successful artist, and a bit of a character," confides John while tucking into his shish kebab. This was the first time John had ever mentioned his grandfather, and I was all-ears.

Alastair Kenneth Macdonald, better known in his day as the artist and illustrator, A K Macdonald,
was the son of an eminent  doctor who had worked with Lord Lister - the man who brought us antiseptic surgery. Macdonald's Spanish mother tragically died shortly after giving birth to him, and the family moved to the ancestral home on the Isle of Skye. Here the young Macdonald and his brother explored the wild landscapes of Skye and would eventually be packed off to school in Edinburgh. The boys' grandfather was a man of considerable means having established his own civil engineering firm during the height of the Industrial Revolution. But after his schooling, the family's fortunes collapsed and the young Macdonald took up an apprenticeship with an architect in Glasgow on account of his keen interest in sketching. The appointment wasn't to last as the boy preferred drawing from life, and felt stifled by drawing buildings. So he sought training at the Glasgow School of Art, but in fact left after just six weeks. He subsequently showed some of his sketches to the Editor of the Glasgow Evening News, Neil Munro who immediately saw the lad's talent and gave him his first commissions there and then. From then on, there was no looking back. The commissions began to roll in. During this period, Macdonald was to meet the actor George Hawtree who was appearing in a Midsummer Night's Dream in Glasgow. The actor was so taken with a piece Macdonald had produced for the production that he promised to introduce him to a London editor. He was as good as his word, and weeks later, the young lad found himself on the staff of The Longbow, a noted London periodical. His work got noticed immediately and it wasn't long before he'd be producing work for some of London's most prestigious publications including The Tatler, The Bystander and The Sketch.

"So when you say your grandfather was a bit of a character, do you want to elaborate?" I ask John quizzically. "Well, he was obviously a man of great charm as well as talent. And he was clearly attracted by the opposite sex," John manages between mouthfuls of chicken. "He was surrounded by all these lovely young things. That's all he ever seemed to draw. He drew them beautifully, of course."

Indeed, it does seem to be the case that a great deal of his illustrations are of diaphanous young ladies in various states of undress, though these are always charmingly rendered, and never suggestive or vulgar. And his line work is extraordinarily fluid and precise. You can see from his work why he was in such demand, and it's remarkable that he was able to produce these drawings with no formal art training to speak of.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Macdonald enlisted in the London Scottish and found himself in the trenches in France, and within three months was invalided out, returning later as an officer with the Gordon Highlanders. He didn't stop sketching, however, and his frivolous young ladies would adorn the walls of his mess and draw the admiration of one particular Colonel.

Following the war, his work continued apace. And by 1924, Alastair Macdonald, now a married man with a daughter of his own, was to meet a distant relative, the illustrator Alice Helena Watson who shared the same agent, Francis & Mills. He offered her the opportunity to come and work with him in his studio. In normal circumstances it would not have been deemed proper for a married man to make such a proposition, but Macdonald was family, after all and Alice's mother could see no harm in it. Inevitably, a relationship developed, Macdonald's marriage fell apart and the two eventually married in 1926. She was 20 and he was 45.

The alimony of £8.00 a week was initially something of a financial burden, but as the two took on work together and finished each others drawings, their finances improved steadily, and by the time they were parenting two sons in 1928, things were certainly looking up. In 1931 they moved to the affluent and leafy neighbourhood of St John's Wood, occupying number 16 St John's Wood Park, a large imposing property that had previously been the magnificent home of the best-selling author, Ellen Wood - better known as 'Mrs Henry Wood.' While Alice took on numerous commissions to illustrate children's books by such authors as Compton McKenzie, Margaret Lodge, A. S. M Hutchinson and her own sister, the author, Effie Watson who wrote under the pseudonym Dale Maniford, her husband's work continued to grace the pages of high society journals.

At around this time Alastair received a commission to design a sumptuous promotional booklet for one of Cunard's luxury liners: The Acquitania for which he would receive the astonishing sum of £1,000. In addition, he and his wife would enjoy free board upon the liner to the USA. They were in fact offered the Royal Suite and dined at the Captain's table. The trip, which must have been quite something was ultimately marred when Macdonald's agent absconded with all the money. To give you some idea, £1000 back then would be worth around £57,000 in today's money. A huge sum to have had stolen.

That misfortune marked a turning point in Macdonald's career. Magazines increasingly turned to photography and many that had employed his talents either changed in character or disappeared altogether. "There are," says John, "many parallels between his industry and mine. Look at the way digital technology has affected the world of photography, film making and retouching. If you can't embrace the changes, you tend to get left behind."

Alice, by contrast, found that more and more children's books wanted her work, so she had to work twice as hard to compensate for her husband's lack of work.

By the time the Second World War had broken out, the shortage of paper had dealt Macdonald's business a fatal blow, and his work dried up. To add insult to injury, their home was bombed in 1940, and the couple moved to number 24 Church Row, Hampstead. It was hardly downsizing. Church Row is one of Hampstead's finest roads, and its Grade II listed Georgian properties are today among the capital's most desirable. (Some years later, the famous comic genius, Peter Cook chose to live on this very same road at the very height of his professional career.)

To make ends meet, Alice had to go into overdrive on the work front as well as letting every spare room to students while cooking ten meals every night. Naturally, Alastair would help by taking on some of his wife's work, but there can be little doubt that it must have been difficult for them to sustain the lifestyle that they had become accustomed to.

John remembers seeing a letter addressed to his grandfather from the Savage Club which he had been a member of. His account stood in arrears to the tune of £1,000 and the club had regrettably taken the decision to reject his membership.

During this period, the two boys James and David lived with Alice's sister Effie in the Chilterns. They stayed there for three years, received no schooling and were looked after by a housekeeper.

Alistair only received one commission following the war, and this was to illustrate Anthony Armstrong's fairy tale The Naughty Princess, which had first appeared in 1935 alongside Macdonald's drawings in The Strand magazine. In the late 1940s, Alistair became ill, but continued painting until he died in June 1948 at the age of just 67.

It was a sad demise, and the family had no choice but to leave Church Row.

Alice continued illustrating books into her old age and lived with her sister who became ill with cancer and died in 1960. Following Effie's death, Alice lived in various different properties in London and took on occasional illustration jobs. In her 70s, she sadly began to lose her eyesight, and her remaining years were spent in Lewisham where her son David had bought a flat for her. She died in 1984 aged 88.


In writing this piece I was struck by a couple of uncanny coincidences that span the generations. Like his grandfather, John has also spent much of his professional working life capturing images of young female fashion models albeit with a camera rather than a pen or paintbrush; images that have appeared in the equivalent up-market publications that his grandfather's work would have appeared in all those years ago. And like his grandfather's father, John's own father married a woman of Spanish origin.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Sometimes it pays to stick your head in the sand

I first encountered Martin Handford at Maidstone College of Art back in 1980. He was a couple of years above me and had got himself onto the prestigious illustration course, which at that time was one of the best in the country. (The college has since been merged into the Kent Institute of Art in Canterbury.)

At the time I remember him being a pretty chirpy chap despite being so skint that he had resorted to selling his entire wardrobe, including an impressive pair of brothel creepers, in a desperate bid to raise much needed funds.

Unlike all his compatriots at Maidstone, Martin stood out from the crowd ('crowd' being an appropriate word to use here). You see, all he ever drew were crowd scenes. And his technique hadn't changed a jot since he was a young lad. He would labour over his intricate compositions for weeks on end, using nothing more than felt tips. And his finished pieces were mind-bogglingly detailed with countless characters immaculately rendered in miniature.

The tutors at Maidstone went to great pains to get him to experiment and evolve his style of drawing, but Martin wasn't having any of it. For his entire time at Maidstone, he continued producing the most astonishing series of crowd compositions, and I very clearly remember his final year exhibition, which attracted by far the largest number of visitors who seemed drawn by these unusual works like bees around a honey pot. One piece in particular still sticks in my memory. It was a crowd scene depicted at Lords cricket ground. Besides being able to see thousands of spectators, ones eyes were drawn to the playing area where you could discern several little white figures, and one solitary pink figure jumping over the stumps. This, of course, was the famous Lords streaker whose unexpected appearance during the 1975 test match prompted the late John Arlott to coin the phrase 'freaker.' "We have a freaker down the wicket," quipped Arlott. "It's not very shapely; it's masculine; and I would think it's seen the last of its cricket for the day."

By this stage, Martin was already getting real illustration jobs for national publications and was much in demand. A couple of years later while in my first advertising agency and working with my Art Director, Colin Underhay (also from Maidstone), we had the opportunity to employ Martin's considerable talents. The agency wanted to create a special Christmas card, and Martin seemed like the ideal illustrator for the job. We deliberately kept the creative brief fairly open and asked Martin to create an amusing Oxford Street Christmas scene. His solution was certainly novel. The scene he came up with depicted a throng of shoppers intermingled with  a series of unconventional Father Christmases indulging in the most uncharacteristic activities including vomiting, urinating, mugging passers-by and in one instance, carrying a blow-up sex doll. It was a kind of modern-day take on one of those debauched scenes by Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch. And had it been produced in today's politically correct atmosphere, I'm sure it would have been shelved in favour of something rather tame and less offensive. But this, of course, was 1980. The card went into production and was sent out to all the agency's clients.

In 1986, Martin was asked by Walker Books to create a character with distinctive features that would give his compositions a focal point in much the same way as his pink figure jumping over the stumps or his Father Christmases did. His response was to come up with a character named 'Wally' - a world traveller and time travel aficionado. And in 1987 'Where's Wally?' first appeared in the UK. Its popularity was instantaneous and huge. There would be seven books published in 28 countries. (In the US, the title was tweaked to 'Where's Waldo?') Then there were the inevitable spin-offs of notebooks, pillows, posters and video games, not to mention syndicated comic strips and an animated TV series.

By 2007, 'Where's Wally' had sold no fewer than 74 million copies worldwide, and in the same year Martin sold the global rights to the acquisitive Entertainment Rights group for £2.5 million.

I don't suppose Martin has recently felt the need to sell off items of his wardrobe. Though I suspect that signed copies of red stripy T-shirts might fetch a small fortune.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The day Bob Dylan dropped by for coffee

Hanging on our walls at home are two Graham Clarke hand-coloured etchings. Clarke's naive, wobbly renditions of English scenes are his stock-in-trade, and are the kind of items that will occasionally turn up in their frames at Oxfam.

The two that hang at home are nicely framed and mounted, but for me their intrinsic value lies not in their charm but their provenance. You see, they were once the property of one, Lou Hart and back in the 80s, adorned the walls of Winkles Wine Bar in Litchfield Street.

Lou was my father's Best Man and an old family friend. He was quite possibly the shortest man I've ever known, being slightly shorter than my mother who is barely five foot high. But what he lacked in stature he more than made up for with a larger than life personality. He was in short (no pun intended) one of life's natural raconteurs with a very dry wit and fabulous comic timing, and thrived on holding court while chain smoking.

Lou, as far as I can gather, wasn't a great student, left school early at 14 and took a succession of mundane, dead-end office jobs before doing National Service at the end of the war. And then, around the time that my father was engaged to marry my mother, his fortunes were to change quite dramatically. He was to win the football pools. I'm not sure how much his prize money amounted to, but I suspect it was in the hundreds rather than thousands. It was, however, something of a small fortune back then in the early 50s. And with this new found wealth, he very sensibly set himself up in business. First there was a newsagent and sweet shop, which he later sold and with the proceeds bought a cafe in Litchfield Street in the heart of London's theatre land. The cafe included a very dingy and dank wine cellar. Under Lou's stewardship the cafe was named Bunjies, and this underground cavern, though small and decidedly poky, was opened up as a venue for live music. And it was this most unlikely of venues that in the 60s became something of a cult haunt for anyone who was anyone on the musical scene. Such became its status that it attracted the likes of  Phil Collins, Sandie Shaw, Art Garfunkle, Rod Stewart, David Bowie and Jarvis Cocker, to name just some of the burgeoning talent to grace this place with its presence. At the very height of its fame in the 60s, Bob Dylan who happened to be in town, dropped by unannounced and had to pay his entrance fee to get in.

Morgan Levitt used to cook at Bunjies and remembers a young guy who used to do the washing up. "We used to rib him about wearing rubber gloves to protect his fingernails," says Levitt. The young man in question had a distinctive name: Cat Stevens. A couple of months after his stint in the kitchen at Bunjies, Stevens released his first album. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the 80s Lou sold the business and around the same time the LP album 'Live at Bunjies' was released. As a young kid I vaguely remember the black sleeve nestling between my father's collection of classical music. I don't think it ever got played.

Lou's next venture was just doors away from Bunjies. This was to become Winkles Wine Bar. I remember it well. A clean, bright establishment with polished pine furniture that had a distinctly Alpine feel, a good selection of wines, and little Lou occupying centre stage with his acolytes hanging on his every word. He was, of course, in his element.

In truth, the place wasn't run as a business so much as  a social club. And Lou would constantly complain that the tax man was becoming the bane of his life. I strongly suspect that he ran the establishment year in year out at a loss. On several occasions, my brother and I would drop by unannounced and Lou would immediately ensure we were well fed and watered before regaling us with his latest anecdotes, and would, of course, refuse to accept a penny in return. I'm sure he treated all his customers this way. His customers, after all, were his good friends.

Years later, after Lou's untimely death in his seventies, my father would become one of several beneficiaries of his will, and would encounter for the first time some of Lou's good friends. In many ways his was a life lived to the full. I remember hearing from someone that two of his regulars at Winkles, a couple of gay senior civil servants, were in the habit of offering Lou the run of their Mediterranean villa during the summer months. But I also sense that his life was tinged with sadness, for as far as I know he never had a soul mate, and would invariably take the last train home to an empty house each evening.

As for Bungies, I remember visiting it one afternoon in the 90s. I was with my working partner and we were working nearby in Soho, and had quite literally stumbled upon Bunjies by chance. At that time I had no idea that it still existed, so we both stepped down into its once famous cellar and ordered lunch - an unappetising concoction of lentils and pasta - from a girl with dyed hair and a pierced nose. Some months later the place closed down and has since reopened as a Turkish restaurant complete with belly dancers. I'm not sure that Lou would have approved.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Crowdfunding - the latest word in publishing

Last week there occurred a momentous event of groundbreaking proportions. And I'm not referring to the ghastly goings on in Gaza or the shooting down of a civilian aircraft over Ukraine. No, instead I refer to a story that has received scant attention in our newspapers. Indeed, the vast majority of the news reading public will not even be aware of it. I refer, of course, to the fact that it was announced last week that a debut novel that had been crowdfunded by members of the public, had made it onto the prestigious longlist for the Man Booker Prize. The book entitled The Wake is a historical novel set in 1066 by Paul Kingsnorth who turned to crowdfunding because he knew instinctively that no publisher was going to take any interest in his manuscript, which is written in what he terms "shadow tongue" - a hybrid of modern and Old English. Now, when you take into account the fact that for the first time in its history the Man Booker Prize has opened its doors to the US and non-Commonwealth countries, and that such class-acts as Ian McEwan and Donna Tartt have both been squeezed out of this year's contest due to the quality of the entrants, one really has to take one's cap off to Mr Kingsnorth. But more significantly, the publishing industry has now to sit up and take note of this extraordinary achievement by an entirely new publishing model. Unbound, the crowdfunding publisher behind The Wake has only been in business for three years but in this time has already successfully crowdfunded 65 books from the UK, US, Australia and Ireland.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of crowdfunding, this is basically how it works. A crowdfunding publisher will look over a manuscript or synopsis of a manuscript and decide whether it has  merit and is worthy of publishing. If they believe it is, the author will be invited to draft a proposal to potential readers to invest in the project, and the proposal will be designed as a webpage. This done,it will then be down to the author to send out the link via email and social media to raise donations from the public who like the sound of the project. And depending on the level of their contribution, donors will receive anything from copies of the book and acknowledgement of their contribution on the acknowledgements page, to access to the author's notes and a chance to actually contribute ideas to the narrative. In the world of computer games, crowdfunding has become a primary source for funding.

The implications for traditional publishing are potentially huge. "The traditional model is not working for a lot of authors," says John Mitchinson, Unbound's founder. "Publishing has become a hit factory with publishing houses only publishing a handful of books."

From my own limited experience, and that of  friends with writing aspirations, these words of Mitchinson's really do ring true. And anyone who has attempted to publish anything through conventional channels will know precisely what I mean (J K Rowling included). The fact of the matter is that it's nigh impossible to be accepted these days by a literary agent if you're an unknown writer. And if you do approach an agent, you'll need to write the kind of stuff they are already familiar and comfortable with; material they feel confident with when pitching to publishing houses. So you will invariably be likened to another successful author and pigeonholed as say, the next E L James (heaven forbid).

In 2009 I had the germ of an idea for a story that I thought I'd pen in the first instance for my kids. And then, like all enthusiastic would-be storytellers, went and purchased a copy of the Writer's and Artist's Year Book - the Bible for the writing fraternity. This compact tome tells you everything you need to know, including details for publishers, literary agents, wholesalers, e-publishers, self-publishers and so on. Armed with this volume, I went about drawing up a list of literary agents specializing in teen fiction and photocopying my first few chapters, which all agents will require along with a concise synopsis. And like all other enthusiastic novices, dropped off a large pile of large brown envelopes at the post office - only to have to wait for weeks and weeks, and in some cases months and months before receiving a reply from the agent. When your reply does finally materialise it will almost certainly read something like this:

Dear Mr Smithers,
Thank you very much for considering Bloggins and Partners to represent your novel, but due to this agency's very demanding work load, we are only able to consider a tiny fraction of the unsolicited manuscripts that come our way; and having read your synopsis we feel that your manuscript is not one that is suited to this particular agency.
We wish you the very best of luck in the future.
Yours faithfully,
Mr J Bloggins

After the 15th such letter (along with the returned chapters) had landed on my doorstep with that familiar 'thwack', I felt it time to move on. Some weeks later, however, I ran into an old advertising colleague, Hugh Salmon. Unbeknown to me, Hugh had moved into the world of publishing and had co-founded lovereading.co.uk - the online book site that was getting rave reviews from the national press. It was he who suggested I self-publish through either Matador or Penpress. I took his advice and plumped for Penpress because they promised to re-print copies at no extra cost in the event of demand. Penpress offered to edit, produce and market the book for the cost of around £1,600.

Was their service any good? Well, yes and no. Having had the cover professionally photographed and designed independently, Penpress oversaw the production - and in fairness they produced a very nice looking book. The typesetting was fine and the cover well reproduced. This said, their editing was patchy, their marketing non-existent and their press release poorly designed and peppered with spelling errors. Because I wanted my royalty paid to Centrepoint, I had to employ lawyers to draft a commercial participation agreement to be signed by both the charity and the publisher. The reason one has to do this is chiefly for tax reasons. In the UK if you want to give your royalty to charity, that royalty has to be paid directly by the publisher to the beneficiary, otherwise the author becomes liable for tax - despite the fact that he's giving it away. It's crazy, but that's how the UK tax system works.  Once all this had been agreed, Penpress arranged a book signing at Waterstones where I managed to sell 24 copies. I've since discovered that arranging book signings at bookshops is terribly easy: you just pick up the phone. Despite the legal agreement stipulating that Penpress would pay Centrepoint on a yearly basis, it took the publisher two years to pay the first royalty cheque - a measly £200 or thereabouts for the 200 copies sold. So much for the validity of commercial participation agreements.

Amazon has since launched CreateSpace, which allows you to download your manuscript, design your cover, price the book, get an ISBN number, write the sales blurb and then release your masterpiece as a book and an e-book onto Amazon's website - all for free. Needless to say, CreateSpace takes the lion's share of the royalty to make the whole exercise worth their investment. And of course, they won't publish anything. Drivel perhaps but nothing pornographic or politically dubious.

Now, of course, there are the new breed of crowdfunding publishers on the scene who are making waves primarily in America. One by the name of Inkshares recently followed me on Twitter, so I ran my book past them. Several weeks later I received an email back from its co-founder, Larry Levitsky who expressed an interest in adding the book to its growing platform and exposing it to the American market. So I agreed to write a proposal page on the condition that Inkshares agreed to pay 100% of my royalties to Cancer Research UK; a request they were happy to accommodate.

I've no idea if the project will achieve its target of $4,210, but if it were to, Cancer Research UK could stand to gain a tidy sum since my royalty on any future sales is a whopping 70%, and Inkshares claims to have an established distribution network in the US. If you'd like to learn more and possibly even go as far as backing the project, you can view my proposal here.

There will, of course, be a lot of eager eyes watching the progress of Mr Kingsnorth's book. Were it to do the impossible and pull off the top prize, the repercussions for publishing would be fascinating.

Whatever the outcome, the emergence of crowdfunding may well have knocked yet one more nail into the conventional publishing coffin, and looks set to open the floodgates to a sizeable untapped pool of writing talent.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Men of many talents

As a creature of habit, I have always had a great deal of admiration for any individual in this funny old world who can demonstrate skills and talents outside their own areas of expertise.

When I was a spotty adolescent still living with my parents I remember one of their neighbours, a lovely man
by the name of Alec, coming over for a Friday night meal. Alec was a short-hand typist by trade and such were his remarkable speed and professionalism that his services were much in demand from the likes of the high courts and the Jockey Club. So it was with some astonishment after dinner that he nonchalantly picked up my brother's old violin, which none of us could play, and proceeded to play the second movement of the famous Mendelssohn violin concerto. He hadn't received a single lesson in his life but had somehow managed to teach himself.

In a similar vein, there was a chap I used to play cricket with who, besides being a very bright young barrister, used to win knitting competitions, and would knit the most incredible cricket jumpers with the most elaborate cabling. His knitwear was in fact so impressive that the entire team would eventually end up sporting his handiwork - which would often draw comments of approval from opposing teams.

Of course, such talents can have their drawbacks when, for instance, the individual in question becomes a tad obsessive. My brother's old history teacher who sadly passed away not so long ago, was in fact one such person. In many ways he was a typical academic and by all accounts a very good teacher. But he was also a fantastic mechanic despite the fact that he didn't own a car. His love of machinery had led him at one point to collect and restore old motorbikes. When I first met him he was going through his gramophone phase, and had I think accumulated a collection of around fifty wind-up gramophones and wax cylinders - all of which worked perfectly thanks to his mechanical genius. But sadly his obsession grew to the point that one could barely set foot inside his sizeable house for the size of his collection. And it was by this time that his wife had made it very clear to him that either she or the gramophones would have to go. Well, of course, there was no way he could have let any of those remarkable machines out of his sight, so it was his wife who was to make a hasty exit - never to return.

Nant y Coy Mill Cafe nestling in the verdant Treffgarne gorge.
In a rather roundabout way, this leads me onto my old mate, Jon Bray. Jon and I both attended Maidstone College of Art where we managed, between drinking beer, to gain degrees in graphic design, and then perversely secure jobs in the fickle world of advertising as writers (copywriters) rather than designers (art directors). But there the similarity ends. You see, unlike me, Jon is a man of many talents. And one of those talents happens to be cooking. Over a decade ago Jon took the brave decision to jack in his successful career as an advertising copywriter and do what he loves best - cooking. He and his wife upped sticks and moved to the glorious wilds of Pembrokeshire. And to hone his culinary skills, Jon got himself onto a leading cookery course in Ireland and then did a stint as a chef. In 2011 he set up his own business, the Nant y Coy Mill Cafe, and now employs his own workforce including a chef and rears his own pigs, chickens and geese. It's a good life, if at times hard and full-on. Needless to say, the reviews of Nant y Coy Mill Cafe on such sites as Trip Adviser are fantastically positive.

I have yet to pay Jon's cafe a visit to sample such delights as his Ribollita served with toasted sour dough or his chunky smoked haddock chowder with leek, potato and fennel, but something tells me that it won't be long before I do.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Friday, 11 July 2014

Israel bashing. It may be right on. But is it right?

I'm not an especially religious Jew. As Jonathan Miller famously said: "I'm just Jew-ish - not the whole hog you understand." And I'm not a huge fan of religion per se. I've only been to Israel once many years ago when I was a schoolboy. For me the best thing about Judaism has to be the chicken soup and gefilte fish.

This said, it irks me that every time I hear or read about Israel, the general sentiment is vehemently hostile towards this tiny country the size of Wales - the only parliamentary democracy in the Middle East. Admittedly this tiny country does have a right wing government that a lot of us have issues with, and I count myself among those who certainly don't like Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu's policies. I never have. Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in my view was and still is questionable. But to understand the mess that is the Middle East, one has to be in possession of a few inconvenient truths (to borrow Al Gore's phrase). Inconvenient truths that so many who blithely label Israel as a fascist, colonial state seem completely unaware of.

Inconvenient truth no. 1
Before 1967 when Israel went to war with her neighbours, Gaza was owned by Egypt and the West Bank was owned by Jordan - neither of whom recognised their arab brethren as Palestinians living in the land of Palestine.

Inconvenient truth no. 2
There are 5 million Jews living in Israel, surrounded by 500 million arabs. Imagine a match box lying on a football pitch. That match box is Israel.

Inconvenient truth no. 3

The Israeli government does not speak for the vast majority of Israelis when it comes to foreign policy. There are many outspoken Israeli critics of the current administration and many pressure groups and inter-faith groups operating in this small land. And unlike other states in the region, these individuals enjoy the freedom of speech.

Inconvenient truth no. 4

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and now the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have never accepted Israel's right to exist.

The Palestinian Authority went as far as publishing this in 1998:

"The difference between Hitler and (British Foreign Minister) Balfour was simple: the former (Hitler) did not have the colonies to send the Jews to, so he destroyed them, whereas Balfour turned Palestine into his colony and sent the Jews. Balfour is Hitler with colonies, while Hitler is Balfour without colonies. They both wanted to get rid of the Jews... Zionism was crucial to the defence of the West by ridding Europe of the burden of the Jews." Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, December 6, 1998

I think this text says everything we need to know about the PA's deep-seated feelings about Jews.

Inconvenient truth no. 5

Since 2001 Palestinian militants have been firing thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel, deliberately targeting civilians; acts which the United Nations, the EU, Amnesty International and others have condemned outright as acts of terrorism.

So the next time you hear someone on their high horse telling the world that Israel is a pariah state, do please remind them of these five inconvenient truths. Like every other hotbed of conflict in this complicated world, there are always two sides to any intelligent debate.
Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Cinema - the ultimate theatre

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my first day at primary school. For some unfathomable reason the experience remains indelibly ingrained in my memory. I can still recall waiting with my mother to be introduced to my teacher and then being shown around the school with its glazed brown wall tiles, faded parquet floors and distinct smell of disinfectant, and eventually bursting into tears on being shown the gymnasium. I'm not entirely clear what triggered those tears, but I suppose it must have had something to do with an aversion to any form of physical exercise; a trait that, for good or ill, has remained with me to this day.

And I suppose it must have been shortly after this traumatic school episode that I was taken by my mother during a particularly wet and miserable afternoon to the local cinema - The ABC in Ilford High Road. My mother used to love the cinema, and this would have been the first of many such visits. The film being screened was 'The Wizard of Oz' starring a very young Judy Garland. It seems odd now to think that back then, seeing old movies screened on the High Street would have been par for the course. (Today old classics are only ever screened in art house cinemas.)

On taking our seats and being treated to the wonderful opening scenes of the storm, something really quite extraordinary happened: the real heavens opened and torrential rain hammered down with such force that within minutes, and just as the little wooden cabin on the big screen was being uprooted by the storm and tossed in the air, it began to rain quite literally through the light fittings in the ceiling. As a young boy of five years of age, it must have seemed all rather marvellous, until, of course, this indoor rain caused those sitting beneath it to put up their umbrellas and obscure my view.

This surreal state of affairs was not to last for long. The film ground to a halt and the lights came on. (In retrospect, I don't know how the lights didn't fuse with all that rain water cascading through their housings.) The disheveled manager of this rundown flea pit eventually appeared from nowhere and, like a startled hare caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, made some kind of halfhearted apology to the audience and asked us in no uncertain terms to leave the auditorium and collect a refund from front of house. As it happens, I have never got round to seeing 'The Wizard of Oz', even though both of my children have. But from that inauspicious introduction to the cinema, the bug for sitting in the pitch dark and being mesmerised by moving images, had taken hold.

Like all young children at that time, I was soon to discover the world of Walt Disney whose enduring animated masterpieces including 'Snow White', 'Pinocchio' and 'Lady and the Tramp' never failed to enthral and get those tear ducts working again. (Years later, I'd learn that Disney himself was not perhaps one of the nicest people to walk this planet, and had at times displayed racist, antisemitic and misogynistic tendencies.)

Then, of course there were the family holidays, which would invariably include a trip or two to the cinema. On one of many summer breaks to Devon I recollect sitting in a majestic picture house and witnessing before the screen, a man playing an illuminated Wurlitzer theatre organ, which gently sunk into the bowels of the building once the curtain was raised. The film being shown was 'The Longest Day', the 1962 epic black and white second world war movie based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan, about D-Day and the Normandy landings.

My introduction to the world of cinematic comedy came a little later thanks to an uncle who was himself a keen cinematographer. He would frequently show us his extremely amateur holiday films, which usually had a sound track of my grandmother unintentionally narrating over the wobbly camera angles with complaints about some aspect of the holiday. The effect, whether intentional or not, was hilarious, and decidedly Pythonesque. This very same uncle introduced my cousin and I to the genius of Woody Allen one Sunday afternoon at the Gants Hill Odeon where we had the entire cavernous auditorium to ourselves and were treated to Allen's newly released comedy, 'Sleeper.'

It was some years later while in the sixth form at school that my enthusiasm for cinema moved up a gear when I discovered the joys of the National Film Theatre. Here one could become a fully-fledged movie geek and step back in time to watch silent films shot by the likes of Ernst Lubitsch to brilliant piano accompaniment, and hear live talks by luminaries of the film world. Two of these talks stick in my memory for very different reasons. The first was a talk given by Donald Sutherland, the wonderful Canadian actor. Before the great man greeted us with his presence, the lights were dimmed and the screen came to life with a manic scene out of some ghastly B-film in which Sutherland was playing a demented axe murderer. To describe this clip as mind-numbingly dreadful would be something of an understatement. Thankfully, we were spared the discomfort of watching this drivel for too long, and the lights faded up as a tall figure strode onto the stage and then chose to sit on the edge of the stage with his long legs dangling. He looked at us, shrugged and in that distinctively rich voice of his declared, "Well... we all have to start somewhere, don't we?" What ensued was one of the most entertaining and engrossing talks I've ever heard anyone give to a live audience. Mr Sutherland is not only a brilliant actor, he's an incredibly funny and natural communicator, and has that rare ability to speak to a packed house as if he were talking to his mates. He was also remarkably generous with his time, over-running the scheduled time slot to answer countless questions. Someone asked him if there was a scene from a film that, in retrospect, he might have played differently. Sutherland responded that yes, there was certainly one particular scene that he'd have refused to play at all had he known at the time what he was to subsequently discover. He then went on to talk about the scene out of the chilling supernatural film 'Don't Look Now' directed by Nicolas Roeg, in which Sutherland's character had to fall from a scaffolding while carrying out restoration work to a cathedral in Venice. The scene was down on the shooting schedule for a stunt man to play. However, due to some disagreement over the stunt man's contract, he had refused to do it and Roeg was furious. The scene required Sutherland's character to swing safely from a safety harness, so Roeg begged Sutherland to do it himself. To lose the scene, he argued, would be compromising the artistic integrity of the entire piece. Sutherland who suffers from acrophobia wasn't having any of it. But Roeg persisted, making it absolutely clear that there was no risk involved as the crew would be employing the very strongest steel cables for the stunt. After much heated debate, Sutherland very reluctantly agreed. During shooting, Roeg was apparently quite difficult, insisting that Sutherland had to twirl several times on the wire to capture the right dramatic effect in camera. After much sweating and swearing, the scene was in the can and Sutherland could sigh an almighty sigh of relief. But it was only some years after the event, while in conversation with a stunt-man on the film set of another film that Sutherland was to learn how fortunate he'd been. Apparently, the steel cables that Roeg had employed are in fact remarkably safe - so long as you don't twist them by twirling. Sutherland explained that he went a little pale on hearing this. "So what happens if you do twirl?" he asked. "They just snap," came the blunt and shocking reply.

While Sutherland's talk was riveting, the other talk I shan't forget in a hurry (but for altogether different reasons), was by the late Ken Russell. Russell was very much the enfant terrible of the film world and was not one to do interviews or talks. And he certainly had no time for critics. So when the opportunity to hear him speak arose, I was probably one of the first to book my seat. Derek Malcolm the film critic would interview Russell on stage and the film director would then be invited to take questions from the audience. Malcolm took his seat and fiddled with his microphone. Then we waited... and waited... and waited a little more. Eventually Russell showed up looking rather worse for wear and clasping a plastic Sainsburys carrier bag; and it became clear from the off that he simply didn't want to be here. Malcolm, the ever polite and patient interviewer, took all this in his stride and handled the interview with aplomb - but my goodness, it was hard going, and one couldn't help feeling for him. Russell would answer questions in a gruff and slightly detached fashion, and wasn't keen to elaborate. But once questions were opened to the floor his mood was to change for the worse. The questions seemed to rile him. One gentleman in thick spectacles wanted to know if Mr Russell thought it important to film music being played for real, and pointed out that Richard Chamberlain didn't appear to be playing Tchaikovsky's piano score in the close-up shots of 'The Music Lovers.' Russell by this point had had enough and displayed his annoyance by implying that the question was a futile one. And with that he picked up his plastic bag. "I think we're done, don't you?" he declared, and with these words, stumbled off the stage. Malcolm was a little taken aback, thanked his interviewee as he disappeared from view and the lights faded up. There was a pause and then the audience began to slowly make its way to the exits. But in the confusion, the projectionist had forgotten to show clips of Russell's films, so now as everyone was trying to leave, the lights faded down yet again while the various clips were screened, and several hundred members of the audience found themselves stumbling around in the dark. It could have been a scene straight out of one of Russell's own movies, and one I'm sure he'd have found rather amusing.

Not very long after my discovery of the National Film Theatre, I was to stumble upon one of the oldest and, in my view, loveliest cinemas in London's East Finchley. The Phoenix was first opened as the East Finchley Picturedrome in 1912 and its first film was a rather sombre account of the ill-fated Titanic, which had tragically sunk that year. Today The Phoenix retains much of its original character including its famous vaulted ceiling and Art Deco reliefs. Over the years, however, the cinema has come close to being demolished, but thanks to the support of local residents and various high profile campaigners including Maureen Lipman, Michael Palin and Mike Leigh, it has survived in tact. And since 1985 has been run as a charitable trust for the community - its profits going towards its educational work and maintenance. When I first discovered it I was living in East London and would think nothing of driving halfway around the North Circular to see a movie here.

It's probably the only cinema in the UK in which you might book a seat and then be treated to a live performance of Morris men before the screening, followed up by a talk by the director. This was precisely what my wife and I were treated to when we decided on the spur of the moment to see a film neither of us had ever heard of called 'Morris: A Life With Bells On.' The reason we hadn't heard of it was because it hadn't yet been released. But The Phoenix clearly liked it enough to give it an airing. Rightly so as it is in fact a very funny spoof documentary with a few familiar faces including that of Sir Derek Jacoby. I can honestly say that I've yet to see a duff film at The Phoenix.

If like me, you love the cinema but can't abide watching films in the large impersonal chains that attract noisy gangs of kids and are perpetually littered with the detritus of popcorn and fast food packaging, head for this delightful haven in East Finchley. And if you really must insist on munching something, I'd recommend the home-made chocolate cake.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

My learned friend, Walter Zerlin Jr

The recent and untimely death of Rick Mayall brought to mind the considerable talents of one of my brother's colleagues who back in the 70s was doing the comedy circuit along with other young hopefuls including a very young and inexperienced Rick Mayall.

Robert Conway, a barrister by trade was a member of my brother's chambers in Lincoln's Inn. But by night he would exchange his barrister's wig for stage make-up and acquire the stage name, Walter Zerlin Jr. (A name taken from his late father who had sung in opera under the name Walter Zerlin.) Besides trying out his comedy material in pubs and advising the young Rick Mayall, he was an astonishingly prolific writer of comedy, and together with writer and producer David McGillivray, wrote ten farces in a riotous series under the deliberately convoluted title: The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Productions. These were staged versions of classic plays by the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens butchered in the most amusing and inventive ways by a group of amateur thesps, of whom the young Julian Clary was a member.

I had the pleasure of meeting Robert on only a handful of occasions. The first time was at a lawyer's party in Sloane Square hosted by one of the members of the Poet's and Peasants' Cricket Club, a club for whom I was the resident number 10 batsman. I remember little of the party other than being entertained for the entire duration by one of the funniest and instantly likeable characters I have ever encountered. Robert may have been a barrister, but he clearly had little time for legal talk and couldn't bear pomposity. Indeed, he spent much of the time at this party gently poking fun at his learned friends.

Following this encounter, I was fortunate enough to see two of his hilarious Farndale Productions: A Christmas Carol at the Edinburgh Fringe and a Murder Mystery at the Donmar Warehouse. The production in Edinburgh played to a packed house and Robert and his family occupied the front row. (I can still hear him guffawing at his own lines.) The farces have since become a huge hit with amateur groups around the world and have been performed no fewer than 2,500 times.

In 1980 he wrote Running Around The Stage Like A Lunatic in which he played all 17 parts including a one-legged nun - the largest cast ever played in a theatre by one actor. And for this he won an Edinburgh Festival Fringe award and got himself onto the Russell Harty Show.

As a barrister, he was later to defend John Cleese on some minor driving offence, and Cleese was so taken with him that he asked Robert to be the legal adviser on A Fish Called Wanda. Cleese was to later recommend his services to Marlon Brando who needed advice on court room scenes in A Dry White Season.

There is little doubt in my mind that Walter Zerlin Jr would have eventually hung up his barrister's wig and made his name in comedy, in much the same way as Clive Anderson has. But tragically, this was not to be. In early 2001 he suddenly became ill with cancer and passed away in November, leaving a wife and two young daughters.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Lovely hotels, terrific food and charming personal guides. The only downside: it's North Korea.

Way back in the 90s I was the Best Man at a cousin's wedding: a classy do in the grounds of a historic country house somewhere in Colchester. This particular cousin was and remains something of an intrepid traveller and is in the habit of traipsing off to some of the world's most far flung corners at the drop of a hat.

The spotlessly clean metro resplendent with chandeliers.
Following an incredible lunch, I was called upon to regale the assembled throng with the usual embarrassing anecdotes that is the Best Man's prerogative. I don't remember much of the speech other than my first line, which I've always thought a rather good opening line. If memory serves me correctly, it went something like this:

"Ladies and Gentlemen,

"Today marks a very sad day indeed...  for the economies of Bhutan, Madagascar and outer Mongolia. For I fear that now my cousin has tied the knot, his delightful wife will put an end to her husband's intrepid jaunts with his photographic paraphernalia, which have for so many years helped sustain these third world economies."

As it turned out, I couldn't have been further from the truth. Admittedly, my cousin and his good lady wife do take the usual holidays in civilised parts of the globe. But these are supplemented by regular jaunts to areas the average human being wouldn't touch with the longest of barge poles; expeditions that my cousin embarks on alone.

His most recent escapade was to that very peculiar country, North Korea; a country that the late, great Chris Hitchens described in the following terms:

'Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: this horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.'

Hitchens, as you can gather, was not a big fan. But my cousin, having already taken trips to South Korea, was keen to see her Northern cousin with his own eyes.

In the unlikely event that you were interested in following in his footsteps, there are just two travel agents in the UK that can arrange such a trip: Lupine Travel and Regent Holidays, both of which deal with the Korean International Travel Company.

Once my cousin had arranged his trip he had to fly to Beijing to pick up his visa and then board a train - the K27 or the K28, which is a sleeper that goes all the way to Pyongyan. It's an extraordinary line that also connects China with Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam, and this particular section is used chiefly by Chinese diplomats.

On arriving at Pyongyan, my cousin was met by his two guides: two very courteous and and well dressed ladies who were fluent English speakers. They would have been members of the most privileged section of North Korean society. And for the following seven days these two would accompany my cousin everywhere except his bedroom and bathroom. Needless to say, the guided tour had to be rigidly adhered to; one could not venture off the beaten track. To do so would result in immediate repatriation at the very least. A couple of months ago a 24-year-old American was arrested for "rash behaviour" when going through customs, and he hasn't been released as this post goes to print. Sadly, his is not the only case. Kenneth Rae, another American has been held for more than a year for conducting a religious service, a crime for which he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for "subversion."

Apparently, the first thing every foreign visitor has to do before taking the official tour is to purchase at his own expense a bouquet of flowers, place them at the foot of the enormous 22 metre bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, and take a deep bow out of respect for the 'Dear' departed leader who lies in state here.

From then on, the tour was clearly a sanitised one. My cousin did not encounter anyone with anything other than a cheerful countenance. There was no evidence of starvation, severe poverty or human rights violations. But then, this, of course, is nothing more than a piece of state propaganda. In 1944 Adolf Hitler chose to show the world how nicely the Third Reich was caring for its Jews by housing them in a place called Theresiestadt. The film shows its inhabitants laughing and joyful, healthy and well-fed. Little did the world know then that Theresiestadt was in fact a death camp.

So on this sanitised tour my cousin was to be shown Kim Il-sung's birthplace; a captured American spy ship; the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum; the gloriously lavish metro system with chandeliers large enough to have impressed Liberace; the Mangyondae Children's palace where kids from the age of five study and perform music and martial arts with disturbing precision; the infamous demilitarised zone, which my cousin found strangely friendly; and the International Friendship Exhibition where you can view vast, cavernous halls housing gifts given to Kim Il-sung by world leaders including Gaddafi, Castro and Arafat.

So if you're looking for a holiday that can provide five star comfort, outstanding cuisine and a most courteously and attentive personal service at all times, North Korea certainly ticks all the boxes. But if you want to see the real North Korea, for heaven's sake don't go there, because it's just possible you'll never come back.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Saturday, 31 May 2014

The ad man who's been airbrushed out of the picture

The year is 1995 and in the leafy and affluent village of Fleet in Hampshire, the police have been called out by a particularly distressed individual to a deeply bizarre and grizzly scene that wouldn't be out of place in a macabre episode of 'Silent Witness'. Only this isn't fiction.

On their arrival at a beautifully converted barn, the police are lead across a well manicured garden and then down a manhole into the bowels of an eerie underground tank. And here in this dank and poorly lit underground hide-away their eyes are greeted by the corpse of a middle-aged man. Unlike most they come across, this one is virtually naked, stripped down to his boxer shorts and is hanging upside-down from the ankles with his wrists tied behind his back. His head is immersed in a pool of stagnant water no more than six inches deep. The man who discovered the body is apparently the brother of the victim and is clearly in a state of distress.

In most cases the discovery wouldn't have received much in the way of column inches in the local papers, let alone the national press. But this case is different, because the corpse in question is that of Christopher Martin, one of advertising's most distinguished copywriters and one of the founders of Saatchi and Saatchi.

Within days the news hits the headlines and is on the airwaves. The advertising industry is shocked by the news and one of Mr Martin's former colleagues, Sir John Hegarty when interviewed by The Independent newspaper, makes it clear that he firmly believes his old working partner was murdered.

Some weeks later the second bombshell hits the advertising industry when the county coroner, James Kenroy gives his unwavering verdict. 

"It transpires," states Kenroy, "that this apparently normal and successful family man had his own Achilles' heel." Kenroy goes on to explain that Mr Martin's "vulnerability" was clearly his lust for high-risk erotic adventure. Being a sailor, Mr Martin had expert knowledge of tying knots and all the evidence pointed to the fact that his predicament had been entirely self generated. Tragedy had struck when a wooden stake that had been employed to ensure that the heavy roller to which the rigging was secured, did not move, had been dislodged, causing the roller to be dragged closer to the manhole and lowering Mr Martin in the process until his face sank into the water. From the pathology reports it seemed that Mr Martin had tried in vain for 16 and a half hours to keep his head out of the water, but eventually succumbed to exhaustion  and drowned. Recording a verdict of death by misadventure, ruling out suicide, Mr Kenroy said: "It is a tragedy that the deceased got himself into."

The inquest also heard that this had not been the first time Mr Martin had tried bondage. Frank Harris, a previous neighbour had, several years prior to this, heard him crying for help one night. Breaking into his cottage, he had found Mr Martin dangling from the beams of his attic with his wrists and ankles tied.

Had Christopher Martin died in normal circumstances, it is more than likely that we would have seen obituaries in the press and tributes in industry publications like Campaign. But this was not to be. Instead, there were a few pieces in the dailies and that was it. No more talk of the man. The whole episode was far too embarrassing for the industry, not to mention those close to him.

Even to this day, one cannot find much, if any, evidence of his work online, which is a great shame because he was an outstanding writer. Indeed, one of my favourite English press advertisements was penned by him. It was written for Volvo, ran across three consecutive full pages in The Times and didn't so much as show an image of a car. Instead the reader was treated to a fairy story in the style of the Brothers Grimm and an illustration of a castle by David Hockney. The discreet headline wasn't even a headline in the conventional sense of the word. It merely read: 'The Castle Race by Christopher Martin. Illustrated by David Hockney.'

In this regard, Christopher Martin is one of only two English copywriters to have successfully placed himself (a la Alfred Hitchcock who loved to place himself in his own movies) into one of his own press advertisements; the other copywriter being the late David Abbott. Strangely, Abbott's advertisement was also for Volvo. (In his ad, the car was shown suspended above him and the headline ran: 'If the welding isn't strong enough the car will fall on the writer.')

Martin's ad was, however, totally unconventional. It broke every conceivable unwritten rule. Besides not showing the car, it didn't even mention a single car in the text. The only mention of Volvo came at the end of the copy in he form of a very discreet logo. Yet despite these apparent shortcomings, this was a brilliantly effective and creative piece of branding that left the reader in no doubt whatsoever that Volvo was an ethical and thoroughly decent company that built exceptional cars. So I thought it time to redress the balance and give the text of Christopher Martin's ad a bit of an airing. Whatever people may have thought of him during his lifetime and after his tragic, if bizarre, demise, this piece of work demonstrates his gift as a writer and the fact that it can certainly pay, in terms of advertising, to be completely and utterly unconventional.

The Castle Race
By Christopher Martin
Illustrated by David Hockney

Once upon a time, and a time before that, there lived in the Northlands in the Kingdom of Hrolf, a beautiful princess named Asa.
She had many suitors from all parts, but two noble princes, Agnay and Volund were far more persistent and determined than the rest.
Unable to decide between them, Asa sought her father's advice. "Both are princes," she said, "both fine horse-men and one as handsome as the other. How shall I choose?"
At this, King Hrolf summoned the two princes to his court. "Guarding the northern and southern entrances to my Kingdom are two identical hills," he said. "Take one hill each and on it build a castle fit for a princess. Whoever shall finish first will marry Princess Asa. But one thing. You must complete the task for no more money than this." And so saying the king gave each prince one thousand crowns in gold (a modest fortune in those days). The two princes began at once, though with rather different attitudes of mind.
Prince Agnay reasoned thus: "It is a race," he said, "so speed is of the essence. I will engage many labourers who will have to work for low wages. We will use local stone because it is convenient and cheap, if a little difficult to work. We won't waste time with proper scaffolding, we will sleep rough and eat what wild berries can be found on the hill."
Prince Volund was of a different mind: "Building castles is long, laborious and often dangerous work," he said. "I will engage only enough men that I can pay fair wages. We will haul stone from across the mountains because it is easier to work. We must cut down pine forests as scaffolding and to make proper shelters for the men, and we will engage full-time hunters to keep us well supplied with deer and wild boar."
"Furthermore," said prince Volund, "every man who helps me build this castle shall have a part ownership of it, which will entitle him and his family to seek refuge here in times of trouble."
At the end of the first summer, King Hrolf came to view the progress. Prince Agnay's castle was half complete, but poor Volund had only just begun. The people laughed at Volund. "It will doubtless be a very fine castle when it's finished," they mocked. "What a pity there will be no princess to live in it." King Hrolf wasn't so sure.
Then winter came. And as you know, winters in the North-lands are very severe. Cold hands found Agnay's stone even harder to work. Accidents caused by the lack of scaffolding, trebled. The berries disappeared from the hillside, and where there had been grass for a bed, now there was snow.
Mumblings and grumblings became visible discontent, and one by one Agnay's men downed what tools they had and asked, "Why should we work under these conditions?"  Volund's labourers knew they would gain lifelong security for their families from the finished castle. They went to Volund and said, "Because we are so far behind in the race, we have looked around and found ways of being more efficient."
And so it was that as Agnay fell into disarray, Volund went from strength to strength. And as you will have guessed by now, one summer and winter later he not only finished first, but had built by far the most beautiful castle.
At the wedding, which by all accounts was a splendour in itself, King Hrolf took Volund to one side. "I have gained more than a son," he said. 
"In this part of the Northlands, the lessons that you have taught will never be forgotten."

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Of course creative copy sells. In this case it sold the copywriter.

The year is 1934, and Robert Pirosh is a bright young American kid working in New York as an advertising copywriter. Like so many young men at the time, Pirosh likes to dream. He likes to see himself writing not for dreary household names, but for the stars of the silver screen. But unlike so many American dreamers, his dreams get the better of him, and before he has time to think things through thoroughly, he quits his well paid job on Madison Avenue, and heads for the Hollywood Hills with his typewriter.

Once there, he compiles a list of as many directors, producers and studio executives he can muster and impulsively bashes out a letter. But this is no ordinary letter. This is a letter concocted by a creative mind - one free from the shackles imposed by conservative clients and cautious account executives. It reads as follows:

Dear Sir,

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave "v" words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land's-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words. May I have a few with you?

Robert Pirosh

The letter secures him three interviews and a subsequent job offer from MGM. Within a year, Pirosh finds himself writing for the Marx Brothers. He co-writes both 'A Day at the Races' and 'a Night at the Opera'. And by 1941 his place as a Hollywood screenwriter is very firmly established, but also very abruptly interrupted by war, in which Pirosh sees active service as a Master Sergeant with the 320th Regiment, 35th Infantry Division in the Ardennes and Rhineland campaigns. In fact, during the Battle of Ardennes, he leads a patrol into Bastogne to support the surrounded American forces there.

After the war, he puts his extraordinary wartime experiences to good use by writing the screenplay for 'Battleground', a film based entirely on the Battle of Ardennes.  The film is hugely successful and picks up two Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. He then goes on to win the Golden Globe and the Writers Guild of America awards. And in 1951 he is nominated for another Oscar for his screenplay 'Go for Broke' which he also directed.

It's an astonishing achievement that might never have come to fruition had Pirosh not been so impulsive and bashed out those 189 glorious words on his typewriter.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds