Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Conversing in the car

I took my now-retired English teacher from school at Uppingham, Gordon Braddy, on a day trip to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at Birmingham University.
We saw so many fine works there Botticelli, Veronese, van Dyck, Rubens, Poussin, Dahl (above*), Murillo, Gainsborough, Turner, Rossetti, Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Monet, van Gogh, Rodin, Gauguin, Derain, Magritte, Hodgkin… His first time there.

The journey was some two hours by car in each direction (including me losing my way in both directions, somewhere around Spaghetti Junction). We talked intimately and continuously.

At one point, Gordon remarked how good such journeys are in promoting rich conversation… ‘much better than trains.’

I suppose the fact that driver and passenger sit so close to one another, but necessarily without eye contact, has a lot to do with that.  

*Johan Christian Dahl (1785-1857, Norwegian), ‘Mother and Child by the Sea’

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Conversation not Presentation

In a current article in Forbes*, my colleague George Bradt enjoins us to give up on presentations and have conversations instead.
My own epiphany on this subject came on a trip to Hamburg. I had been expecting a one-to-one meeting to discuss innovation with the Unilever marketing director there. Instead I was confronted by a phalanx of marketing, innovation and R&D people.
‘Well, Roger, we are greatly looking forward to your presentation,’ said Herr Marketing Director.

Presentation? What presentation? I didn’t have one.
‘Sorry,’ I responded. ‘But I think it would be much more useful if we were to have a conversation.’
There was much puzzlement around the room. What kind of presentation was a conversation?
It took a while to get going, but in the end it was richer and more thought-provoking than any presentation, tapping into all their shared knowledge and insight and enthusiasm. And mine too.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Scotland the Brave?

It’s never been easy, making a living in Scotland. In recent decades, there has been the oil to hold up the economy and before that there were all those UK-based public service jobs (including the army) that provided consistent employment.

Of course, many of the Scots being fine entrepreneurs, historically it was England and the British Empire that provided many with a platform to exploit their talents (including my own ancestors).

Presumably the oil won’t last for ever, so, unhitched from England and Wales – with a YES vote looking more and more likely – their best chance would seem to be in the EU, assuming that the EU keeps them on.

Scotland the Brave? My old boss, Bill Weithas, always used to equate bravery with high risk.

It’s their choice. Roll on September 18.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Searching for the Great Australian Opera

Americans seek perpetually for the Great American Novel. Perhaps the equivalent Down Under is the search for the Great Australian Opera.

The first to have been composed and produced in that place was Isaac Nathan’s Don John of Austria, premièred in Sydney in 1846, and recently revived by Alexander Briger. Briger is the nephew of conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, both of them descendants of Nathan.  

I’ve recently been listening to Richard Meale’s Voss, which strikes me as a strong contender as GAO.

But currently, I’m bowled over by the so-far unstaged Sappho of Peggy Glanville-Hicks, who not only wrote the music, but also created the libretto from a play by Lawrence Durrell. It was commissioned by San Francisco Opera in the early 1960s, but was never performed by them. Two years ago it was recorded professionally in Lisbon the brainchild of young Australian conductor, Jennifer Condon (above), who assembled a fine group of singers with the Gulbenkian Orchestra.

Time for a full production, Opera Australia?

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Strolling through the National Gallery in Canberra

In Canberra, a city with so much fine architecture from the 20th century, we had the opportunity to spend time in the National Gallery of Australia. It’s a collection and building that I’ve known and revisited over three decades.

While the collection itself has much of great interest – there are over 150,000 works in it – the building is (and always has been) problematical.

It was designed by Australian architect Colin Madigan in the 1960s, with advice from the previous director of the Guggenheim in New York, JJ Sweeney. And that’s where the deepest problems seem to start. Madigan followed the Guggenheim’s core concept, creating a spiral. But while this is immediately self-evident in New York, it’s scarcely discernible in Canberra, seeming to be more a jumble of interconnected spaces.

This wouldn’t matter quite so much if there was adequate signage around the building. But there isn’t. So one walks from one space to another, scarcely aware that the works are from any particular context, or location, or style, or time.

Added to that, there is very limited information on view about the works themselves – title, date and artist, yes but today’s visitors to art museums expect and deserve so much more.

 It all feels so unloved. And unlovable.  

What’s more, it’s still difficult to find the main entrance, the way in. This has always been a problem area, one which preoccupied previous directors, and was tackled, unsuccessfully, by the current incumbent, who is shortly to retire.

There’s so much for his successor to tackle, but I’m not at all clear how all these issues might be resolved short of starting over again.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Changi surprises

Visiting for the first time the museum and chapel dedicated to the prisoner-of-war camp at Changi in Singapore, the first surprising thing we learned was that 90% of the visitors come from Australia.

Changi has always had a special resonance for Aussies, some 16,000 of them being incarcerated there after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. The camp had a particular reputation for the brutality of its regime.

A second surprise was to discover that Australians were by no means the largest contingent there. There were twice as many British prisoners. But most numerous of all were the Indians, members of the Indian Army based in Singapore, fighting with the British.

I wondered why the Indians are scarcely mentioned in the excellent museum displays. This gradually became clearer. At that time, many Indians were concerned primarily to evict the British from India, so when the Japanese offered them an alternative to the hardships of POW life, many decided to join up with the emerging Indian National Army in support of the Japanese war effort.

The most significant contributions of the INA were in fighting against the British at the Battles of Imphal and Kohima (in North-East India) and through Burma.

Later that day, we came across a memorial to the INA in the Esplanade Gardens.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Vincent Nolan RIP

I first met Vincent Nolan some forty years ago. He came to teach Synectics to a group of us at Garland-Compton (shortly before it morphed into Saatchi and Saatchi). I was in my late twenties and had risen quickly in the advertising business, but learning from Vincent undoubtedly transformed my life.

It dawned on me that one of my main skills up to that point was in identifying weaknesses in other people’s thinking and wielding the scalpel, and that this approach, while it had helped me to be successful, was of very limited value in promoting real creativity and innovation (the lifeblood of marketing communications). Vincent taught us that a better approach was first to articulate the value in emerging ideas, then going on to identify the key issues and problem-solve them.

This may seem simple, even obvious, but it required some complete personal rewiring in myself, changes that have lived at the heart of my life and work ever since.

Following that early encounter, I brought Vincent into each successive new role I found myself in – training my new teams in the whole Synectics bag of tricks. Perhaps most powerfully this was achieved at Lintas in Sydney, where, in a succession of visits from him, most colleagues in the agency were given the treatment. This was a major factor in enabling us to work together more effectively and creatively – and as a consequence we were able to rise from eighth in the local league table to second in just five years, quadrupling profits in the process.

Eventually I joined Synectics myself, as Vincent gradually wound down his life's work, concentrating more on his cello and his golf.  

At 85, Vincent Nolan died last Sunday, 17 August.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Standing up for Jonas

It’s not every day that opera house orchestras get to emerge, blinking, into the light above ground level. But that’s what happened to the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra this last week as they appeared with the German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House.

I say ‘appeared with’ because although the audience had come to hear the Great Divo, the orchestra occupied half the programme without him, playing splendidly – overtures to I vespri siciliani and La forza del destino, intermezzos from Manon Lescaut, I Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusticana, the Bacchanale from Samson et Delila and the winsome Meditation from Thaïs (lovely solo from concertmaster Laura Hamilton).

Daughter Dora, possibly to be provocative, said she enjoyed their pieces most in the concert.

Of course, Jonas was there too, in excellent voice, providing clear evidence of why he has emerged as the leading tenor of our day – voice bright with a baritonal tinge, together with an unusually total command to the Italian and French styles, as well as his native Austro-German.

The audience bayed its approval, the standing ovation lasting some twenty-five minutes and interrupted by four gratefully received encores, the final one rendered in German, then English – ‘You are my heart’s delight’.

We had tickets for this take-out-a-mortgage event courtesy of our two New Best Friends in Sydney, to whom grateful thanks.