“Then came human beings. They wanted to cling but there was nothing to cling to.”

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As regular readers know, I recently moved from London to Sydney. Because of the move I had to give (almost) my entire book collection away. This heart-breaking necessity was partially offset by the fact that I do most of my reading on my Kindle now and partially by the small pile of books I did manage to bring with me – the ones I really couldn’t bear to part with. Among them is Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. Just looking up from the sofa and seeing the cracked spine of the battered paperback up on the shelf takes me back to living in Brixton 20 years ago: being young, mixed up, open to everything; listening to Suede’s The Wild Ones over and over; trying to work out what I wanted to do with my life. The book meant so much to me; it blew my mind and gave me so many ideas about ethics, morals, writing…life.

I mention all this because 20 years later, Donna Tartt’s third book, The Goldfinch, had a similar effect on me. As with The Secret History, it’s a thrilling, beautifully written and impossible to put down novel that’s packed with ideas that go right to the heart of what it means to be alive. I’ll begin with something the narrator’s art-obsessed mother says to him right at the start – words which then reverberate right down through the novel as it unfolds:

“People die, sure. But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. The Parthenon, used as a munitions storehouse. I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.”

These are in fact, the last words 13-year old Theo Decker’s mother says to him, shortly before she’s killed in an explosion which he survives. The Goldfinch was inspired by Tartt’s absolute horror at the destruction of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, by the Taliban in 2001. “I was haunted and sickened by the destruction of something that had been at the heart of the world for centuries,” she’s said.

The other key inspiration for the novel was the poignant, visceral emotion Tartt felt the first time she stood in front of a tiny oil painting by the Dutch master Carel Fabritius, in Holland 20 years ago while she was in Europe on a promotional tour for The Secret History. The painting, often acknowledged as his masterpiece, is the exquisite image of a goldfinch (above), chained lightly by the ankle to its metal perch, affixed to a wall. In it, Fabritius uses a trompe-l’oeil effect: the idea is to make the bird seem alive. Once that illusion is dispelled, you can admire the textural skill with which he’s built it up. Fabritius was Rembrandt’s most promising student and a major influence on Vermeer. His use of brushwork, treatment of space and the way he plays with perspective were revolutionary but sadly, he died aged just 32 in 1654, the same year he painted The Goldfinch (the ‘1654’ written next to his name in the bottom right hand corner is poignant and spooky). The explosion of a gunpowder factory which killed him also destroyed hundreds of his paintings, tragically leaving only a handful extant.

The destruction of the Buddhas, the melancholy beauty of The Goldfinch and the sad calamity of Fabritius’s back story came together to inform the core idea at the heart of the novel: that art can provide some meagre but meaningful comfort, existential salve and redemptive power in the face of life’s bleak reality. Tartt quotes Nietzsche – “We have art in order not to die from the truth” – and this idea plays out in Theo’s great love for The Goldfinch. She also quotes Albert Camus at the start of the novel – “The absurd does not liberate, it binds” – but it was another Camus quote (from The Fall, that I used as the title of this blog) which came to my mind throughout the novel: we are all of us, on some level, scrabbling around in the metaphysical wilderness and art, like love, is one of the handful of elements of the human experience that can offer us some shred of meaning.

Theo’s relationship with the painting is complicated and multi-layered. It’s his mother’s favourite piece and the last thing they see together before the terrorist bomb rips through The Met and kills her. In the aftermath, urged on by a dying man with whom he shares a transcendent few moments, Theo takes it from the rubble and gets out. But while he’s irrevocably tied to the painting on an emotional level, he has a powerful aesthetic connection to it, too. At one point he says:

“If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see and think and feel, you don’t think, ‘Oh I love this painting because it’s universal’, ‘I love this painting because it speaks to mankind’. That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes, you. An individual heart shock. A really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular.”

Later on, reflecting on The Goldfinch once again, Theo says: “And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”

In my studying of the painting – sadly only in online representations, my screensaver (!) and a print I bought, rather than the real thing (which is in The Mauritshuis in The Hague) – it seems to me that much of its power comes from its various ambiguous meanings. What was Fabritius trying to communicate with his picture of the trapped little bird? When I stare at its face, into its eyes, I feel an almost human sense of sadness and wonder if he was trying to get across some profound emotion inexpressible in words. It reminds me of the Edward Hopper comment – “Maybe I’m not human. What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.” In The Goldfinch, the ankle chain – which you don’t see at first – is surely a comment on the strange nature of captivity.  In the novel, Theo asks:

“Because – what if that particular goldfinch (and it is very particular) had never been captured or born into captivity, displayed in some household where the painter Fabritius was able to see it? It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery: bewildered by noise (as I imagine), distressed by smoke, barking dogs, cooking smells, teased by drunkards and children, tethered to fly on the shortest of chains. Yet even a child can see its dignity; thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.”

It’s a beautiful evocation of the poignant contradictions at the heart of the painting and at the core of the idea that underpins the book. The New York Times review nailed it with the line: “We often can’t see to what or whom others are held hostage, and we rarely know what will take us.” Theo, whose mordant wit and uncanny insight make him part Hamlet, part Holden Caulfield, is well aware of these existential conundrums. Looking back on the story in retrospect he says:

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

That passage whacked me around the head so hard that I had to get off the bus one morning and sit quietly on a bench by the Quay for a while to properly take in its melancholy truth and beauty.  Then, in the extraordinary, unforgettable and deeply moving closing section, Theo minutely dissects the novel’s ideas and, in sublime, transcendent prose, sets out its central philosophical themes:

“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time. And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time—so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

For Theo, who has gone through the grim tragedy of losing his parents and the heart-breaking psychic agony of deep but unrequited love, the beauty of The Goldfinch has given him meaning, context – connected him in some intangible and precarious but profound and precious way, to a larger sense of infinite beauty. Which chimes deeply with me because, as a reader, I feel as intensely about this novel as Theo does about the painting.

Sir John Hegarty famously said that great work is “80% idea and 80% execution.” He was obviously talking about advertising but The Goldfinch – both the painting and the novel – are glorious embodiments of that thought. As creative people we can look at them in wonder and admiration, taking joy and inspiration from the heights that creativity can scale. Both are works of timeless, astonishing brilliance, both extraordinary blends of imagination and craft. “You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life,” writes Theo. I’ll be thinking about (both versions of) The Goldfinch for the rest of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

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“My whole life I’ve been achieving the impossible.”

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Bernard Hopkins grew up in Philadelphia’s housing projects, one of eight kids in a dirt-poor family. By the time he was a teenager he’d got into street crime, ranging from petty theft to violent muggings. At 14 he was running completely wild and lawless and had been stabbed three times. By 1982 he’d been up in court 30 times over two years and, aged 17, he was sent to Graterford Penitentiary, Pennsylvania, for 18 years.

In this violent adult prison, he saw fellow inmates being raped and murdered. “I saw a guy killed for a lousy pack of cigarettes,” he says. He tried to build a reputation as a tough guy but was stabbed with an ice pick that just missed his lung. A visit from his mother might have provided some comfort…but she’d come to tell him that his brother had been shot dead.

He got out of prison early and was given 10 years of parole. “See you soon,” the guard at the gate said as he left. “They expected me back and they expected me back quick,” Hopkins says. Out on the streets, Philadelphia had been destroyed by drugs and violence. Looking back on it, Hopkins says, “There was an even bloodier war going on than there had been when I was sent to prison.” 

He’d discovered boxing inside – the one legal thing he was good at. So he took a job washing dishes in a hotel and trained at the local gym at night. His firs professional fight was set for October 1988. Perhaps this was his way out of the seemingly inevitable cycle of violence and punishment, a wasted life.

But he lost the fight, badly. With both body and ego bruised, he didn’t go back into the ring for over a year. He didn’t want to be the guy put in the ring to lose, to make the potential champions look good. Anyone less resilient and driven would’ve gone back to a life of street crime. And back to prison soon after that.

Not Hopkins. He started training again and, in 1990, aged 25 and a stone lighter, he had his second fight. Perhaps he was finally about to make some progress. But although he won that fight, he spent the next five years as “the third man in the house”, behind James Toney and Roy Jones Jr. These two were legends and Roy Jones Jr in particular was clearly an all-time-great in the making. In 1993 Hopkins got a shot against Roy Jones Jr but was beaten on points. Another opportunity had slipped away.

Finally, in 1995, aged 30, Hopkins won the middleweight world title, stopping Ecuador’s Segundo Mercado. He went on to defend it 20 times, including knockouts of Oscar de la Hoya and Felix Trinidad, two of the sport’s best fighters of the last 25 years. He was 35 when he beat Trinidad and 38 for the De La Hoya fight. His mum begged him to stop boxing when he turned 40. But it had been a long, hard road to get to the top and he intended to stay there.

In 2011, aged 46, he beat Jean Pascal – a tough Canadian 18 years younger than him – to become the oldest boxer ever to win a world title. Then in 2013, aged 48, he beat Tavoris Cloud…and his own record. On Saturday night, aged 49, he used experience, guile and the power punching that’s never left him to take apart Beibut Shumenov and become the oldest boxer ever to unify the world titles. It was an awesome performance and the cherry on top of an amazing career.

While his peers James Toney and Roy Jones Jr tarnish their reputations for much-needed cash way down on the undercard of promotions in small halls (Toney) and in mixed martial arts fights (Jones), Hopkins has stayed at the very top of the hardest game. He’s taken on and beaten everyone, ducked no-one and now he’s the last man standing. Others had more talent, but Hopkins wanted it more than them and had the discipline to go with it. Unlike other big boxing names like the idiotic Floyd Mayweather Jr, Hopkins keeps his head down and works his arse off. Outside of the ring he lives a quiet family life in the small town of Hockessin, Delaware, with his wife Jeanette and their three children. “I’m not that talented,” he says. “Roy Jones was 10 times more talented than me. Most of the fighters in my era, including James Toney, those guys was more talented than me all around the board, and I’m not being nonchalant about my talent. But something that I understood from day one: You keep your body clean, your mind clean, you don’t get caught up in the bullshit that goes with success, you will be alright.”

Boxing writers and fans often ask Hopkins how he’s stayed at the top of his game for so long and when he’ll retire. It’d be easy to believe that there’s a portrait of him ageing hideously up in his attic like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. But I think his success and longevity is simply a matter of hard work, extraordinary focus and a burning desire never to go back to the life he knew growing up – the path that seemed mapped out for him: hustling out on the streets, crime, Graterford Penitentiary or a violent, early death.“I will never beat the clock, nobody beats the clock,” he says. “I have just found a way to maintain my health and I have a deal with Father Time that I did when I came out of the penitentiary: I knew that if I transformed my life I would never be inside again.” 

Hopkins turns 50 in July and is looking forward to his next world title defence. After that he’s talking about a final fight, with the unbeaten Floyd Mayweather Jr, on his 51st birthday. His life is a rags to riches story with so many remarkable twists and turns, so much incredible self-belief in the face of relentless defeat and tragedy, so much to inspire and amaze us. He’s a kind of anti-Lance Armstrong and all of this will be a Hollywood movie one day. But for now the story goes on and this blog stands as a record of one man’s refusal to let circumstances, misfortune, tough breaks and other peoples’ opinions ever break his indomitable spirit. He hasn’t always had it his own way in or out of the ring but his utter refusal to back down in the face of setbacks has defined him. “I got knocked down,” he once said. “Anybody could be knocked down, anybody can be knocked out. But it’s not what happened…it’s what happens next.”

The killer combination of preparation and spontaneity

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At the 2006 World Cup, the semi-final between Argentina and Germany ended 1-1 and went to penalties. The Germans, with their steely resolve and ice cool composure, obviously have a reputation for winning penalty shoot-outs. But going into the penalties the Argentinians, with their South American flair and ultra-confidence, would have backed themselves. It was a fascinating, finely balanced situation. However, one player tipped the odds in his side’s favour with his remarkable approach to the shoot-out and performance in it.

Prior to the game, the German goalkeeping coach Andreas Koepke and goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, had analysed the Argentinian penalty takers’ previous ten penalties. They used these stats to create notes on the style of each Argentinian penalty taker, his timing, run-up and where he was likely to direct his kick.

Lehmann kept the scribbled ‘cheat sheet’ stuffed in his sock behind his shin pad and, just before the shoot out began, he pulled it out and conspicuously studied it. Then he pulled it out again between each penalty. This clearly unnerved the Argentinians to the point that their trademark cockiness evaporated. Lehmann dived the right way for every spot kick and when he saved Roberto Ayala’s penalty the Argentinians looked panicked. With the shoot-out score at 4-2, Esteban Cambiasso had to score to keep them in with a shout. If Lehmann saved it, Germany were through. As Cambiasso walked from the centre circle to the penalty area, Lehmann took out his note, studied it carefully, then tucked it back under his sock looking very confident. The Argentinian ran up, hit it low to the right and Lehmann saved it. It was game over. Jen Lehmann’s cheat sheet had given him the answers and he’d saved the crucial penalty, knocking out Argentina and sending Germany through to the semi-finals.

Except that wasn’t the full story. Yes, Lehmann had used the notes to guide him through the shoot-out. But the final penalty taker, Cambiasso, had been a late substitute and Lehmann later revealed that he and Koepke hadn’t known he’d be taking a penalty so didn’t have any notes on him. Before that last Argentinian penalty, Lehmann had been bluffing Cambiasso, studying the note purely to unnerve him. This kidology had worked; the pressure had got to the Argentinian sub, enabling Lehmann to save the decisive spot kick.

Aside from being a fascinating sporting tactic, Lehmann’s approach feels to me like a perfect analogy for generating great creative work (or, indeed, achieving anything worthwhile in life). Painstaking preparation topped off with an inspired element of spontaneity in the execution. A strategy that simultaneously instils confidence while unsettling the competition. What a brilliantly powerful combination.

And THIS is how to use patriotism in an ad

Following my rant about the Cadillac ad the other day, a couple of readers questioned my reasoning. I wanted to make it clear that I have absolutely no issue with the idea of hard work and big ambitions, of people aspiring to better themselves, fulfil their potential and succeed in their chosen field. I’m a fan of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a celebration of uncompromising individual achievement. But, unlike the Caddy ad, it’s written with verve and (bonkers) style. I also have a lot of love for Eastbound & Down and Kenny Powers’ mentalist take on the American dream. He’s a nutter but his tongue’s always firmly in his cheek.

And while I’m not a petrolhead myself many of my friends are and I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore Bruce Springsteen fan. So I’m well aware of the passion people feel for cars and driving, the romance of the road, the themes of speed, rebellion and escape that cars are tied up with. And I have no issue whatsoever with people aspiring to own a great set of wheels. I’m totally down with the bit in the American constitution about ‘inherent and inalienable rights’ to the ‘preservation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. And if a cool car is part of what makes you happy, I totally get that.

What I hated about the Caddy ad was the way it took these themes and twisted them in a cynical, aggressive, blinkered way. How it played on fear and greed, leveraged xenophobia rather than pride. But it didn’t have to be that way. Patriotism can be such a rich vein for creativity. The Boss has proved that in the world of music; in the word of advertising there’s abundant proof. The two Chrysler ads above are shining examples of just how powerful and exhilarating great advertising can be.

The craft drips from every pore of this work – the writing, performances, cinematography, use of music. Both ads blend a deep understanding of their social context with a total respect for the audience. “It’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel. Add hard work and conviction and the know-how that runs generations-deep in every one of us. That’s who we are…that’s our story.” Hearing this VO, you know you’re in the hands of people who believe in what they’re writing. It’s the same when Clint begins his Super Bowl half time state of the nation address, “People are out of work and they’re hurting and they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared because this isn’t a game.” You lean in and listen hard and savour the drama, emotion, empathy. Both ads are goosebump-inducing works of brilliance. And both end with the absolute cherry on top, the smartest, simplest line, three words that leverage patriotism and land the idea so that it resonates powerfully in your mind: Imported from Detroit. Advertising doesn’t get better than this.

Now THIS is how to use an arsehole in an ad

Last week’s blog about the Cadillac ad caused a bit of a furore with quite a few readers contacting me to say that arseholes like the central character shouldn’t be used in ads. But I don’t think anything should be ‘off-limits’ in creativity – anyone and anything can be used in an idea, providing you put an interesting and intelligent spin on it. The Audi ad above is a great example; it’s the antithesis of the Cadillac ad. The idea of a complete fuckwit being the ‘star’ of the ad and being on screen for the full 60 seconds is brave and brilliant; the concept employs irony in a subversive way that was clearly way beyond the Cadillac team.

A few people thought the Cadillac ad was a spoof and my friend, the Creative Director Iain Ross, said that while watching it, he was waiting for it to “cleverly flip and make some kind of profound, poignant and relevant statement” about the car. It doesn’t do that, but the Audi ad does. By the time the yuppie in the Audi ad utters the unforgettable refrain “Gabby? Tell Charles I’m on my way. Taxi!” the viewer is totally in on the joke. When matey out of Band of Brothers winks at the end of the Cadillac ad, the viewer is completely alienated.

Another friend of mine works at the agency network that did the Cadillac ad and told me that it looked really good in the early stages before production. Which is a great reminder of the vital importance of tone – the tonality that comes from little script tweaks, casting decisions, cinematography and so on. I have nothing against the idea of working hard and aspiring to be successful – more on this tomorrow – but that message came out all mixed up, cynical and needlessly hostile.

As a side note, I’d always thought the Audi ad must have been a really tough sell to the client and wondered how BBH had pushed it through. Then, couple of years ago, I worked on some ads with Steve Hudson, the creative who did it (he’s an excellent commercials director now). He told me the story of presenting a bunch of scripts to John Hegarty, Hegarty immediately picking this one, vowing to get it made and making it happen. At another agency with another ECD, this could’ve been one of those ‘what if?’ ideas. The fact that this ad exists is another example – as if we needed one – of what made/makes BBH one of the greatest ever agencies. The Audi ad is audacious, counter-intuitive, unexpected. But, as Andy Warhol said, “Art is what you can get away with.”

An Ode To Arseholes

Like a lot of people who work in advertising, I have a love-hate relationship with the industry. When I see work that entertains, informs, inspires, delights, enriches and – in some cases saves – people’s lives, I feel proud that I spend my life using creativity for commercial and, sometimes, social means. Work like Samsung’s Bridge of Life, Pampers Unicef, BHF, Nike+ Fuelband fits into this category. I’m fortunate enough to work at an agency that creates big, bold, intelligent and meaningful work.

But the flipside to that positivity is work that puts crap ideas or products out there. Work that tries to leverage fear, jealousy, greed. Work that makes the world a shittier place. Work like the ad above, for the Cadillac ELR. This heinous celebration of being a total dickhead would be funny if it wasn’t so cynical and hateful. It’s like the Genesis and Huey Lewis and The News-loving sections of American Psycho but without the knowing humour.

As this second division Gekko dashes past his wife and kids to change into his expensive-but-crap suit, I thought to myself that the whole thing would’ve been a smidgeon more palatable if the talent was Ray Liotta instead of this charmless Liotta wannabe. At least real Ray would have some clout and charisma you could get on board with. Perhaps the makers of the ad simply weren’t “crazy, driven hardworking believers” so Ray turned them down.

By the time our comedy capitalist gets to his stupid Cadillac, by the time he’s dragged the good name of my hero Muhammad Ali into his web of bullshit, by the time he’s told us that America got “bored” of the moon but will be the only nation to go back there, I’m so viscerally hacked off with his idiotic, racist and factually incorrect diatribe that I don’t think it can get much worse. But it does…

First, Patrick Bateman’s dead-behind-the-eyes cousin goes postal with his bullshit machine gun, spraying us with clichés like “Work hard…create your own luck…gotta believe anything is possible.” Then he goes back to his idiotic paean to being a rich, stupid ’80s throwback, reminding us that he earned his crap house, crap car and “all the stuff” by only taking two weeks off a year. Unfortunately, while he thinks we’re sitting there drooling with jealousy over his “stuff”, we’re actually thinking, How fucking stupid must you be to be mega rich and only take two weeks off a year?!” Epic fail, dickhead.

Then, to top it all off, in a fitting sequence that takes punchable smugness to previously uncharted heights, our friend mutters a line in French (he can parlez Francais! He’s clever and cultured, see!), winks and leaves us with the bitter taste of his dud philosophy in our mouths. Worst ad of all time. N’est-ce pas?