On arriving at the allotted hour, we were ushered up to the creative floor of a recently refurbished building that had that distinctive new building smell. Everything was grey and black, which was the height of chic back in the late 80s. In fairness, it would still look sophisticated today. We had our own sizeable office for two weeks. But the greatest disappointment to befall us was that the great man himself was on holiday and would not return until we had departed. So there would be no chance to contrive an impromptu meeting with him in the company lift of a morning.
Abbott had cemented his reputation for writing memorable press ads for the likes of Volvo, Sainsbury’s, The Economist and Chivas Regal, to name but a few. But he was equally at home writing TV commercials, and his famous ‘J R Hartley’ TV commercial has gone down in advertising folklore as one of the UK’s best-loved commercials.
This said, he will always be remembered for witty headlines; and cogent, eloquent and perfectly structured copy. I remember one of his very long headlines for Chivas Regal that fuelled a lively argument at college. Some of us felt it was truly heartfelt while others found it overly sentimental and cloying. The press ad ran on Father’s Day and read as follows:
Because I’ve known you all my life.
Because a red Rudge bicycle once made me the happiest boy on the street.
Because you let me play cricket on the lawn.
Because you used to dance around the kitchen with a tea-towel round your waist.
Because your cheque book was always busy on my behalf.
Because our house was always full of books and laughter.
Because of countless Saturday mornings you gave up to watch a small boy play rugby.
Because you never expected too much of me or let me get away with too little.
Because of all the nights you sat working at your desk while I lay sleeping in my bed.
Because you never embarrassed me by talking about the birds and the bees.
Because I know there’s a faded newspaper clipping in your wallet about my scholarship.
Because you always made me polish the heels of my shoes as brightly as the toes.
Because you’ve remembered my birthday 38 times out of 38.
Because you still hug me when we meet.
Because you still buy my mother flowers.
Because you’ve more than your fair share of grey hairs and I know who helped put them there.
Because you’re a marvellous grandfather.
Because you made my wife feel one of the family.
Because you wanted to go to McDonalds the last time I bought you lunch.
Because you’ve always been there when I’ve needed you.
Because you let me make my own mistakes and never once said. “I told you so.”
Because you still pretend you only need glasses for reading.
Because I don’t say thank you as often as I should.
Because it’s Father’s Day.
Because if you don’t deserve Chivas Regal, who does?
Abbott later admitted that the ad was, in fact, a love letter to his own father. Whether you like it or not (I happen to like it), it’s a lovely example of Abbott's perceptiveness and his ability to tap into the way we humans think and feel. And it’s this emotive and powerful line of reasoning that imbues all his copy, whether he’s writing about crumple zones on Scandinavian cars or the health benefits of a Liga baby rusk.
When in 1998, he announced his retirement from the agency he founded in order to take up a new career as an author, none of us gasped in surprise. Here was a man who was already writing the most exquisite prose, albeit in a truncated form. And plenty of other copywriters had taken the plunge before him. Copywriters who certainly hadn’t received the kind of recognition Abbott had. There had been Fay Wheldon ( ‘Go to work on an egg’). There had been Peter Mayle (‘Nice one Cyril’ for Wonderloaf bread). And there had been Salman Rushdie (who readily admits to penning ‘naughty but nice’ for fresh cream cakes).
Admittedly, it took some while to complete his first work of fiction, but in 2010 Abbott’s debut novel ‘The Upright Piano Player’ finally hit the shelves. And quite some novel it is. It was clearly a labour of love as every line has been so well-considered and beautifully honed. Lines like this: Designer gowns from a former era, lovingly preserved in polythene, hang uneasily on bodies that have had no such luck. The book is peppered with such lines, yet the narrative is brisk and not the least bit laboured. And, of course, there’s that sharp perceptiveness about human nature and the little observations that lift the writing to another level. We also get a real feeling for the characters themselves through Abbott’s sharp ear for dialogue.
The story itself is an incredibly sad one and is structured like a Kurt Vonnegut novel starting at the end. But in all other respects, it is as far apart from a Vonnegut novel as you could possibly get. Many reviewers have compared the writing to Ian McEwan, and it’s a fair comparison. What is abundantly clear is that ‘The Upright Piano Player’ is an accomplished novel that can stand head and shoulders with anything written in the English language. As a debut novel, it's remarkable.
The story’s protagonist, one Henry Cage is a perfectly affable character on the surface. He has enjoyed a successful career as the founder of his own management consultancy business. But on retirement, it becomes clear that Cage’s personal life is anything but perfect. As the novel progresses, Abbott allows us to peek into Cage’s family dynamics and the fracturing of relationships, which could so easily have been averted. Added into the mix is a string of random incidents that have truly devastating consequences and are well beyond Cage’s control. Together the sequence of events makes for a tragedy of epic proportions and demonstrates the fragility of life. But don’t be put off. The narrative is utterly compelling, and you really do want to spend time in Henry Cage’s company. He is sharp, witty and likeable, if a bit obstinate and set in his ways. The closing line to the novel is utterly heartbreaking, as we know from the very first page how this story ends. And that’s another aspect that I think works so well with this novel. The way it has been structured is really clever. We know from page one how it ends but we don’t quite know how it gets there. But when we do finally get there and everything has been unravelled, the emotional punch of the very last page is enormous and gut-wrenching because we know that the last page isn’t actually the last page.
Having retired from advertising myself and written a couple of self-published novels, I have only just got round to reading ‘The Upright Piano Player’. But I am baffled by the fact that this fine book has received so few reviews on Amazon - no more than a paltry 38 ratings in ten years. My own self-published scribblings have notched up twice as many ratings in ten months. But I’d be the first to admit that my writing pales in comparison. So why on earth isn’t anyone reading this fine book that has been published, I might add, by a mainstream publisher (Quercus)? Am I and those 38 other reviewers on Amazon the only people to rate ‘The Upright Piano Player’ as a terrific read? Surely not.
I speak up for David Abbott’s novel not simply because I believe it to be an extraordinarily lyrical and haunting book, but because David Abbott cannot speak up for himself. He very sadly passed away rather suddenly and unexpectedly in 2014. He was one of the very few advertising men whose obituary made it into the national newspapers as well as the BBC news. This said, his debut novel only appeared as a foot-note among the reams of newsprint devoted to his contribution to British creative advertising. And yet this novel is undoubtedly his crowning achievement. The Guardian rightly described it as ‘a beautifully constructed debut.’ The saddest thing about ‘The Upright Piano Player’ is that it’s Abbott’s first and last foray into the world of literary fiction. We shan’t lay eyes on any other gems from this hugely gifted and overlooked author.