Thursday, 17 December 2009

An act of creation

My colleague John Simmons blogged a couple of days ago on the Writers & Artists site about the significance of the place you write being as much to do with mental as physical location. I agree with him. I’m writing this in a busy Starbucks by Edinburgh’s Haymarket Station, on a snowy December evening. But more of that in the new year …

Last weekend I went to the Turner Prize show at Tate Britain and marvelled at Richard Wright’s winning creation. A vast gold-leaf fresco of mesmerising power and beauty, ‘creation’ seems the right word for it because that is just what it conjured for me: the Creation. Minutely detailed shapes seethe, swirl and flow in a gorgeous torrent of gold across a huge expanse of white wall. It has an almost religious intensity, like something by Blake or Michelangelo. I could have gazed at it for hours.

Not so the programme. Here is one sentence: ‘Wright accepts and virtually reverses the effects of attrition, re-assessing correlative notions of value and preservation, a virtue running across his practice.’ There are, in fact, three things you need to know about Richard Wright and that, whatever it means, is not one of them.

Sadly, this is language that seems designed to exclude, not because people are too dumb to understand it - it’s actually pretentious twaddle that is mostly not worth saying anyway; but because it exudes intellectual superiority, whose underlying message is that certain great cultural experiences are beyond the reach of ordinary people. That doesn’t seem to me like a very sensible or enlightened communications strategy for the twenty-first century.

And the three things about Richard Wright? First, he’s steeped in the history of art and draws on influences as old as they are wide. Second, he never knows what he will create until he steps into the space where he’s going to exhibit. Third, his work is impermanent; he makes it straight onto the wall and paints it out again when the show ends (in this case on 3 January).

Go and see it before he does. And have a Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Christmas shopping

I'm conscious that I ended last week’s post on a negative generalisation, making the point that in the world of business, bad writing so often puts paid to good ideas.

But precisely because so much of it is so poor, it’s all too easy to dismiss the genre completely; when in fact there are plenty of individuals in the world of business who write extremely well, and a small but growing number of organisations that really understand the value of language.

Seeking to redress the balance, I went Christmas shopping today with my eyes peeled for good examples. Since my first port of call happened to be John Lewis, I didn’t have to wait very long. The famous slogan ‘Never knowingly undersold’, and the accompanying pledge to refund the difference if you find the same item cheaper elsewhere, have stood the store in good stead for nearly 85 years.

‘At John Lewis we don’t just define value by price,’ they say. ‘Though our prices are some of the most competitive on the high street, we also offer incredible value in the quality of our products, as well as our expert, highly professional service.’

The thing is, it’s all true. And we believe it partly because the experience of shopping in the store confirms it; partly because it chimes with everything we know about the business ethos of the John Lewis Partnership (whose 67,000 ‘partners’ received a bonus for 2007/8 worth 20% of their gross salaries).

John Lewis’s signage and leaflets are brilliantly written because the language they use is simple, direct and, above all, honest. It’s an organisation whose voice is in harmony with its head and its heart. That makes for compelling communication.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Advanced magic

The visionary Arthur C Clarke once said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ I spent an intriguing day this week in the presence of just such magic, at the Informatics Department of Edinburgh University.

Informatics is the science of information and information processing. If that sounds dry, picture a lab festooned with cameras and microphones which record every word uttered and every movement made by each member of any group that gathers there – essentially an intelligent meeting room that can capture the discussions and interactions that take place in it, and analyse them by practically any set of criteria you care to think of.

Alternatively, imagine a table top which is also a multi-touch screen from which you and the other people sitting around it can individually summon information or entertainment, share knowledge and communicate, or even play a game together, all by lightly pressing the glass in front of you.

A small, curious group of us were there as token consumers to brainstorm possible commercial applications for these technologies. We hadn’t the faintest idea how they worked, and to that extent they were magic; the things they were capable of doing seemed miraculous.

It struck me that good writing can also seem miraculous in its ability to touch the heart and stir the soul, enliven the mind and ignite the imagination. Yet, effortless and transparent as it might appear, it’s similarly underpinned by the application of, in this case, a finely honed craft rather than technology, to an idea that has germinated in the fertile recesses of someone’s brain.

And when the craft, like the technology, is not sufficiently well developed the idea itself is likely to wither - as, sadly, business writing all too often demonstrates.