Cyril Eric Feldwick

Today, my father would have been one hundred years old.

My grandfather was in France at the time his son was born, serving with the 75th Field Ambulance. I still have the telegram he received two days later and carried in his wallet for the rest of the war: ‘A boy. Christine doing well.’ It was nine months before he was drawn for leave and came home unexpectedly on New Year’s Eve. The local paper reported that ‘it was a sight for the gods to see its khaki father proudly carrying his lusty though youthful son through the village last week’. Within a few days he was back in France.

In 1940 it was my father’s turn to join the army. I only recently found this photo, which seems to mark the occasion. Everyone is putting a proud and brave face on the event, though my grandfather (on the left of the picture) looks a little more doubtful, as he well might after fours years’ experience of treating the wounded behind the trenches. No-one at that moment knows what the war might have in store for my dad. He is twenty-four.

dad joining up


















A year later, his REME unit embarked from Liverpool on the merchant ship, Sydney Star, and it was not until a large convoy had assembled and begun to move south that even the ships’ captains were told that their destination was Malta. Malta was an island of huge strategic importance and the Axis powers were determined to starve it of resources; many ships were lost on the route. On the morning of July 23rd the convoy was attacked in the narrow channel between Sicily and Tunis, and the assaults continued through the next twenty-four hours. At 3.00 a.m. my father heard a tremendous explosion, as Sydney Star was holed below the waterline by a German U-Boat. He and all the troops aboard were evacuated in the pitch darkness to another ship, Nestor, which entailed walking across a plank between the two decks as they rose and fell in the heavy seas. The next day they arrived in Valetta, and Sydney Star herself belatedly limped into harbour safely.

The following three years were extremely tough both for the Maltese and the Allied troops stationed there. Continual bombardments destroyed most of the island’s buildings, and subsequent convoys struggled even harder to get through so that there was a constant shortage of food and other essential supplies. And, of course, there was for much of the time the threat of imminent death as the Luftwaffe regularly attacked three times or more each day (usually at mealtimes, my father recalled). Everyone had frequent bouts of a local strain of dysentery known as ‘the Malta Dog’ (‘is it barking?’ was the jocular inquiry). Suffering from such malnutrition that his teeth became loose, my father had to have them all removed by an army dentist.

Cyril Feldwick, ca. 1950He came back home in 1944. This professional photograph taken of him in 1948 seems to me now a way of re-asserting his personal dignity after the indignities of the siege of Malta. He returned to his earlier job as a bookseller, managing shops for Wymans (later absorbed by John Menzies); he married, and I and my two sisters were born. In 1963 he parted company with Wymans and was obliged to take a job as accounts clerk at the local factory in Abergavenny, where we then lived, and he worked there until his retirement. He rose to the position of Budget Controller and was highly respected in the firm, but never advanced further because he had no formal accountancy qualifications. At the age of 65 he started work in a local independent bookshop, selling second-hand books and titles about the countryside and local history, and he continued to do this until he was in his eighties; he enjoyed it much more than the accounts department, and when asked his occupation always proudly answered ‘bookseller’. In his later years he spent a lot of time hill walking around Abergavenny, being especially fond of the Llanthony Valley and the hills toward Hay on Wye.

Apart from a couple of short trips to France and Belgium just after the war, he never left the UK again. He never went on an aeroplane, never learnt to drive nor owned a car, never owned a house. He never had much money but was never in debt; he drank little, and in his forties he gave up the heavy cigarette habit that I assume he had begun in the war. I do not know if he was dissatisfied with his life, more than any of us are. I have the impression that after his experiences on Malta, he was mostly content to be on dry land, to have enough to eat, to pass his days without the fear of imminent destruction. That’s what I like to imagine.

He died just short of his 93rd birthday. He specified three hymns that he wanted at his funeral; one of them was ‘For those in peril on the sea’.

Letter to Gavin Ewart – a poem

ewart book

ewart book 2





Gavin Ewart, 1916 – 1995, poet and advertising copywriter


Letter to Gavin Ewart


You were born in 1916 – the same year as my father –

that’s the kind of opening line you wouldn’t disdain,

though whether you wrote with a pearl-finished fountain pen

or bashed out your verse on your old copywriter’s Imperial

is one of the many things I don’t know about you,

and probably never will. You worked at Notley’s,

the kind of agency named like a minor prep school

that today no longer exists – you must be laughing

to hear of Atomic, of 18 Feet and Rising,

of Lucky Generals (that sounds so like a brand

of cigarettes I would very much like to have smoked

in the days when agency air was sanctified

with the calming wreaths of tobacco. Did you smoke?

No doubt in your youth a pipe, and surely no-one

could get through wartime service sane without fags:

I pity today’s shell-shocked millenials

fleeing the smokeless decks of their open plan offices,

though after all, I wonder, they may be the sane ones

and healthier too without those three course luncheons

and bottles of claret you must have known so well).

You were fired from advertising before I’d started

(thrown, as you put it, screaming into the sack

with your screaming wife and children) but made your way

as a writer after that; I was rather surprised

how little importance the ad game seemed to play

in your life; perhaps you would be surprised

how many people bragged to me when I was younger

about the ‘real poet’ who had worked in advertising,

and that was you, not your friend Peter Porter.

I’m rambling, Sir, a word often pejorative

in matters of composition, though when it comes

to reclaiming Kinder Scout for the next generations

or taking the long view, filling your lungs with air

and strengthening the sinews, it seems it’s not so bad,

and it was in that spirit you rambled too.

You would be, today, I’m sorry to say,

frequently labelled ‘inappropriate’

if not plain sexist; the more charitable

would mutter something about the ‘Mad Men’ era;

I think we should just learn to listen to you with respect

for the honesty and irony with which you charted

the unstoppable subterranean floods of sex.

My first years in the business were closer to yours

in time than they are to the present, so I know

how our working days and evenings and weekends

writing meaningless crap were sweetened by decent wine,

twenty Bensons and the reek of ‘sex suppressed’

that kept us all alive; looking back I imagine

that I enjoyed it all, the same way I really quite liked

boarding school, though everyone else today

seems to claim that it scarred them for life and left them a wreck.

I flirted with poetry too, you know, but I think

(here’s a massive whinge coming out) when I tried to get going

I found everyone took it all far too fucking seriously,

and after I’d written for twenty years or so

the Muse buggered off, no longer willing to wait

for the fame I’d promised her. So I have to admit

to a more than sneaking, a great galumphing envy

for the way you could publish every squib you wrote

on an envelope back in the lunch hour ( would you have got on,

I wonder, with Frank O’Hara? probably,

even though you weren’t gay in the least),

and the books would get reviewed in the national press

and everyone would celebrate dear old Ewart

as a national treasure, a sort of scary but harmless

old uncle, more filthy than Betjeman, much more profligate

than anal-retentive Larkin – God, you even rose

to be the head of the Poetry Society

during one of its occasional phases of not falling apart,

and you stood for the Oxford Professorship (lost it of course

to Peter Levi, SJ, and who remembers him now?)

It would be nice to say (you so admired Auden)

that Madison Avenue hurt you into poetry;

you were certainly silly like us, if not more so, but

your stuff frequently looks worse than it is,

though sometimes it really is bad, and that too’s part of its greatness:

it sucks up, it seems to me, enormous strength

from the great sink of rotted manure that is advertising,

refusing, as most poets do, to hold its nose

and wipe its feet on the mat, and agonise

over every stanza (though you were technically ace,

could do any verse-form or style, could render a horrible

episode of violence from Northern Ireland

exactly to the tune of the ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’).

You knew, like Thelonious Monk, which were just the right

wrong notes to hit in the heat of the moment-

did you like jazz? again, I don’t know, that unwritten

biography isn’t available yet on Amazon.

And 2016 will be your centenary.

How will you be remembered, if at all?

Fashions in poetry change faster than trousers

and what seemed daringly naughty in ‘66

is often now just ‘political incorrectness’.

I have a ‘critical study’, extremely thorough,

by an American scholar (whose name is not

Jake Balokowski) – apart from that, there’s nothing

to read about your life. Will you be recalled

like the eighteenth century ‘thresher poet’, Duck,

as ‘the advertising poet’, a curiosity,

the works unread (are they already out of print)?

And that would be a shame, because I think

you have an awful lot to say to us all, in our smug

thought-policed, overworked, over-regulated

electronically neurotic open-plan lives

where the Prêt sandwich curls uneaten by the laptop,

the unbranded cigarette’s greedily sucked by the dustbins

and the bullying email replaces the pinch on the bottom.

The Pyjama Game

Back in March a speaking engagement took me to Piccadilly, so I decided to take this opportunity to buy some new pyjamas. I went to Harvie and Hudson in Jermyn Street, an old-fashioned gentleman’s outfitters which seemed to be one of the last shops in London to sell pyjamas with a tie waist (elastic, since you ask, has always seemed to me either too tight for comfortable sleep, or too loose for safely walking around in decency).

I went in and stated my business, and a suitably Jeeves-like shopwalker showed me a range of styles. ‘But don’t you have any with a tie waist?’ I asked. ‘I am very sorry, sir’, Jeeves replied, ‘But we no longer stock them. It is, I’m afraid…’ he lowered his voice a little, ‘the decision of our new head buyer. I am very sorry. Personally, I myself prefer a tie waist. But you will, I am sure, have no difficulty finding what you want “online”’.

I left Jermyn Street a sadder and a wiser man. It was some months, in fact, before I could bring myself to search online, where I found exactly what I was looking for in about three minutes, and at something less than Jermyn Street prices. The vendor was O. & C. Butcher of Aldeburgh, a shop which I remembered visiting several years ago while attending the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.

Soon after placing my order I received an email from James at O. & C. Butcher. He was sorry that they no longer had the exact pattern I had ordered, but he offered two close alternatives, with photographs. I replied that I would have one of each and they were delivered the next working day.

So far, so wonderful. But ever since then, my use of the internet has been continually interrupted by banner ads and pop ups advertising O. & C. Butcher. Regardless of context, the name appears in front of me over and over again like a visitation in an M.R.James ghost story. And the more this happens, the more my happy memories of the prompt and personal service I received are erased and replaced with a sense of irritation. My image of a traditional family store in a charming Suffolk town has been superseded by the impression of yet another faceless, careless company that thoughtlessly abuses technology. And my sense of being a valued customer has given way to a feeling that I’m just an anonymous target.



A Hindoo Fable

As an9781784621926_SMLyone who has been involved in advertising will probably know, the question ‘How Does Advertising Work?’ has never had an easy or even an adequate answer. Yet it’s a question with some very practical consequences, and possibly some ethical ones too. Does it matter if advertising is remembered, or whether it is liked? Does a successful ad transmit a message, a proposition, or a benefit? Does it work subconsciously, through imagery or symbolism, or through the emotions? Or is it, after all, just a simple matter of fame, ‘keeping your name before the public’ as one early practitioner claimed? The ways we deal with advertising, whether as practitioners or as a society, can’t help assuming certain answers to such questions. And yet, despite a huge and frequently confusing body of research on the subject, the questions remain problematic.

In my forthcoming book, The Anatomy of Humbug, I’ve approached the topic in a different way. I’ve not attempted to answer the question ‘How Does Advertising Work?’, but instead I’ve reviewed the principal ways that advertising practitioners have found their own answers to it over the past century or more. What became clearer to me in the process of writing – and I hope may also become clearer to the reader – is that none of the competing theories is absolutely wrong. Yet any one of them, on its own, is far from being sufficiently right. Each theory, considered as a metaphor, image or ‘way of seeing’ could be useful – just as each, taken too dogmatically as ‘truth’, could become a limitation.

In trying to make this overall approach clear, I found myself quoting a poem I have known since I was very young, when I read it in the much-loved and dog-eared pre-1914 Children’s Encyclopedia that I grew up with.

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined

Who went to see the elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.


The Blind Men and the Elephant: A Hindoo Fable’ was written in the mid nineteenth century by the American John G. Saxe. Each verse that follows tells how one of the blind men encounters a different part of the elephant, and describes it in a way that has no conceivable connection with each of the others: for example one walks into its side and declares the elephant ‘very like a wall’, one finds the trunk and announces it is ‘very like a snake’, one takes the tusk and concludes that the elephant is very like a spear, and so on: the leg is like a tree, the tail like a rope, the ear like a fan.

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right

And all were in the wrong!


I was aware that this approach to reviewing apparently competing theories was not an original invention and, as I acknowledge in the text, it owes a lot to a wonderful book called Images of Organization by Gareth Morgan. This considers several different ways of thinking about organizations – as machines, as organisms, as cultures, as political systems, etc – arguing that all of these are valid and potentially useful. ‘There are no right or wrong theories in management in an absolute sense, for every theory illuminates and hides. The book offers a means of coping with this paradox. It offers a way of thinking that is crucial for understanding, managing and designing organizations in a changing world.’ (Morgan 2006, p.8). Substitute ‘advertising’ for ‘management’ and ‘organizations’, and this couldn’t express better my aspirations for my own book.


Visiting relations over Christmas, I came across a book called Myths, Stories, and Organizations (Gabriel 2004); browsing through it, my eye was caught by a chapter called ‘The Blind People and the Elephant’ by Peter Case, who is Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies at Exeter. Being an academic paper, it has an irritating obsession with ‘inclusive language’ so that the author can’t quote the phrase ‘blind men’ without inserting the word ‘sic’ after it. Nevertheless, ‘The Blind People (sic) and the Elephant’ proved very interesting to me on two counts.

Firstly, because the author extensively quotes Gareth Morgan’s version of the story from Images of Organization. I thought I must have forgotten about this. However, when I tried to find the reference in my copy of Morgan’s book, I was unable to. It turns out Case was quoting from the first edition (1986), while I’d only ever seen the second edition (2006), and it seems that somewhere between the two Morgan decided to remove a whole section entitled ‘On elephants and organizations’. Why he did this I can’t guess; but I was interested to discover we’d independently, at some point, made the same connection.

The other interesting thing was that Case, who appears to be unaware of Saxe’s poem, explores in detail the ancient origins of this ‘Hindoo Fable’. I had been mildly concerned about the political correctness of the story as recounted by Saxe – not only were the seekers after knowledge exclusively male as well as racially stereotyped, but it could be construed as making fun of the visually impaired (and possibly elephants too).

The original version, however, which comes from the Buddhist Pali canon, 6th century BCE, is much worse. Here a rajah gathers together all the people who have been blind since birth in the town of Savatthi to examine an elephant, presenting each with a different part of the animal. He then asks each to describe it:

Those blind people who had been shown the head said it was ‘like a water jar’, those who felt the ear described it as ‘just like a winnowing basket’, the tusk was suggestive of a ‘ploughshare’, the trunk ‘a plough pole’, the body ‘a storeroom’, the foot ‘a post’, the hindquarters ‘a pestle’, the tail ‘a mortar’ and the tuft at the end of the tail ‘just like a broom’. Saying ‘an elephant is like this, an elephant is not like that! an elephant is not like this, an elephant is like that!’ they fought each other with their fists. And the king was delighted with the spectacle. (quoted in Case, pp. 56-57)

Ouch! It sounds like a reality TV show devised by Ricky Gervais. But Case – who is himself a Buddhist – points out that from the Buddhist perspective, the main point of this story is not the partial nature of knowledge, but the conflict and suffering that is caused by each person’s attachment to their own, partial view. The story, in the original version, ends with a verse:

Some recluses and brahmins, so called,

Are deeply attached to their own views;

People who only see one side of things

Engage in quarrels and disputes.

I had vaguely supposed that Saxe’s poem was a typical bit of nineteenth century orientalism, an invented story placed in a suitably exotic context – and I vividly remember how it was illustrated, in The Children’s Encyclopedia, with sblind men elephant thailandome entertaining drawings of little fat men in baggy trousers and turbans. But it turns out that the tale has a long history in many eastern traditions, including Jain, Sufi and Hindu as well as Buddhist, and is still recounted today throughout many countries.

It seems to be a perennially powerful and potent story with many applications, and it’s not just about the limits of our human knowledge, but more practically about the choices we can make in this situation where, in one way or another, we are all blind.



Morgan, G. (2006). Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage Publications

Case, P. (2004). The Blind People and the Elephant. in Gabriel, Y. ed. (2004). Myths, Stories, and Organizations: Premodern Narratives for Our Times. Oxford: OUP. pp. 49-65.

On The Train

The other day I came back home from London on the train, as I regularly do. I took the train from Waterloo which divides at Salisbury before it arrives at my station. Normally the front six coaches go on to Exeter, the last three to Bristol, though this can vary, and the recorded announcements are sometimes wrong; so although I’ve done this journey many times, there is usually a moment somewhere along the line where I have a sudden anxiety I’m in the wrong part of the train. This time it was triggered by the doubts of other people in the carriage. Even though, rationally, I had no reason to doubt, I was not fully at ease until after the train had divided and I knew I was on the right track.

As long as they’ve been around, trains often seem to have been a locus for anxiety of one sort or another. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch suggests in The Railway Journey, this may be at its root because the train traveller is distanced from the means of propulsion and of direction, becoming in effect a small and powerless part of a great machine. I know trains appear in my own dreams with disproportionate frequency, and generally associated with anxiety – I’m rushing to catch a train, unable to find the right platform, unable to get the seat I want. And I usually arrive at railway stations far too early, though not as early as Sigmund Freud, whose phobia about missing trains was so pronounced that he would be marching up and down the platform at least an hour in advance. Freud analyzed this as a fear of object loss, connected with the fear of losing his home and his mother’s breast, and maybe Freud was right, though this explanation didn’t seem to help him get over it.

Freud also had a vivid memory of going by train at the age of three from Leipzig to Vienna; as the train passed through Breslau he saw gas flares burning for the first time, which reminded him of the tales of hellfire and damnation his nanny used to tell him. Certainly I too, as a small child, found the experience of travelling by train both exciting and terrifying; I think I was equally impressed by the immense power, noise and stink of the steam engines, and the powerlessness of my parents to control any of it.

Because travelling by train requires you to play your part as a part of the machine, which is simultaneously the physical machinery of rails and locomotives and timetables, and the bureaucratic machinery of tickets, reservations, and individual conduct. Jean-Paul Sartre had a recurrent nightmare from the age of seven about being on a train without a ticket, an experience which he later equated with personal annihilation or loss of identity. Trains also play a large part in his trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom (the French title, Les Chemins de la Liberté, even echoes the sound of chemins de fer, or railways). The final volume, Iron in the Soul, ends with a long and tense sequence in which a trainload of French soldiers, who have surrendered to the invading Germans, are travelling through the countryside without knowing where they are headed. Most are optimistic – they will be taken to another camp in France, they may even be on their way to be released. It’s a fine day and the doors of the trucks in which they are carried are open. Then the train takes an unexpected turn at a junction: one prisoner panics and in despair throws himself down the embankment. He’s at once shot and the train stops: armed German soldiers surround it. Before the doors are locked for the rest of the journey, a prisoner who speaks German is able to ask one of the guards where they are going – they are bound for Germany.

There’s a sense in which being on a train is always to be a prisoner; you go where the train goes. Heidegger used the words geworfenheit (generally translated as ‘thrownness’) and faktizitat (‘facticity’– maybe these sound better in German?) to express the idea that we don’t control the circumstances of life: we’re stuck on the train, unable to change where it’s going, unable even to change the people we’re with in the carriage. At the same time, to miss the train, or to be refused permission to travel, to be without documents, is to risk annihilation, non-existence. We’ve got to be on that train because that train is existence. Even if we’re not sure where it’s going.

Real People

Julian Assange, 2010I have just read Andrew O’Hagan’s fascinating account of how, in 2011, he spent several months ghostwriting Julian Assange’s autobiography, for which the Wikileaks founder had already been paid a substantial advance. It didn’t go according to plan. Much as Assange loved talking, most of what O’Hagan had to listen to was a mixture of grandiose but trite tirades about freedom, and endless fulminations against those whom Assange believed had betrayed him in some way – which was just about everyone who had ever helped or supported him. He repeatedly failed to do any editing or checking of the text himself.  Eventually, O’Hagan managed to produce a 70,000 word draft that more or less matched the publisher’s expectations – but at this point it began to be very clear that Assange didn’t really want to publish an autobiography at all, and probably never had. Ironically, the man who had become famous for revealing other people’s secrets turned out to be obsessively opposed to sharing any of his own privacy. By the time the book finally appeared, against Assange’s wishes, and to relatively little interest, his agent and publishers had joined the long list of people who had become in his mind his unredeemable enemies.

Assange appears in this narrative as extraordinarily self-centred, even paranoid. He was surrounded by a vague entourage of supporters who would never disagree with anything he said or did; but anyone who offered their own point of view, however well intended, was quickly demonized as an enemy. But though Assange is an extreme case, I found myself reflecting that in itself this way of dealing with difference is not so unusual. I was reminded of something the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips  wrote:

…if other people frustrate us the right amount they become real to us, that is, people with whom we can exchange something; if they frustrate us too much they become too real, that is, persecutory, people we have to do harm to; if they frustrate us too little they become idealized, imaginary characters, the people of our wishes; if they frustrate us too much they become demonized, the people of our nightmares. (Missing Out, pp.29-30).

In Assange’s world, there are hardly any ‘real’ people; he allows it to be peopled only by  acolytes who frustrate him too little, or demons whom he experiences as frustrating him too much. And it seems as if this way of relating to the world has become so habitual for him, that he experiences no possibility of changing it.

But I suspect that in certain situations we all adopt the same blinkers as Assange. That client who won’t buy the ad; the head of the other department who refuses to co-operate; the boss who turns down my budget request: all of these can become ‘the people of our nightmares’ on a daily basis, simply because they refuse to become ‘the people of our wishes’. And it often feels much more comfortable to live with the frustration of ‘that arsehole/those idiots’ than to engage with them as real people, with whom we might need to exchange something.

It’s complicated, because if you’ve become a demon to me, I might well also be a demon to you. And when the reciprocal demonisation involves whole teams, departments, tribes or nations, we know how it escalates. But at least we could pay attention to those moments when the other person we need to work with ceases to be real to us, because they frustrate us either too much or little. Perhaps we could learn to value a certain amount of frustration as an opportunity to get back in touch with the reality of the situation, the reality of other people – and then we could practise increasing how much that certain amount might be.

Academic Drag

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEnjoying a coffee with an old chum last week, he mentioned that he’d read my last blog. ‘Afraid I gave up after the first couple of sentences’, he said. ‘Went rather over my head. Might try it again when I’m feeling stronger.’

As said chum has a PhD and is on the faculty of one of our top universities, I wondered whether I should be happy or unhappy about this response. Actually that’s not quite true: I was immediately unhappy. I read my piece again and considered it both pretentious and obscure in the light of his comments. If you also found it so, I apologise.

Yet I very much enjoyed writing it. I was genuinely excited at trying to formulate some thoughts on a difficult subject which at that moment felt of real concern to me. I admit that if I had sat on the piece longer, and subjected it to some rigorous rewriting, I could probably have made it clearer and easier to read. But I was also rather revelling in playing the part of an intellectual, imagining myself heroically wrestling with tough concepts the way one might wrestle with crocodiles, and I liked the thought that I was  presenting such an heroic spectacle to the outside world.

Dressing up in academic drag is great fun. But perhaps adopting such a disguise is also a way in which I can say things that I couldn’t say otherwise. Do you notice, by the way, how cleverly this is leading back to the theme of identity? I’ll let you finish the thought off for yourself.

Do not ask me to remain the same

220px-Foucault5‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same…’, wrote Foucault: ‘….leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.’ I think he’s playing with two senses of the word identity – which in French or English derives from the Latin word idem, meaning ‘the same’. The Oxford English Dictionary interestingly telescopes at least these two meanings into its definition of the word:    ‘ The sameness of a person or thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else; individuality, personality.’ Foucault’s carte d’identité  would have been required by French law to establish that he was, in a legal or social sense, ‘himself and not someone else’: but is this the same as his ‘personality’, and does his ‘individuality’ depend on his being, in other ways, ‘the same at all times or in all circumstances’? His answer to both questions is no, and we might incline to agree. But in what ways do we need to ‘remain the same’ in order to retain our sense of who we are, or to be recognised as who we want to be in society?

I’ve been reflecting on three different ways we can choose to think about the self. The first comes from Gestalt psychology, in which ‘the self’ is continually in flux, being made and remade as each of us interacts with others. There’s no such thing as a ‘self’ without a social context. The second I get from re-reading James Hillman’s book, The Soul’s Code, in which he proposes that each of us has a unique ‘daimon’ that, unknown to us, arranged the circumstances of our birth and upbringing in a way that fits our individual calling and purpose, and guides and protects us through our life. Hillman dislikes the word ‘self’ and avoids it, preferring to describe each unique life as an ‘image’, which may become revealed over time but doesn’t change – ‘the innate image of your fate holds all in the co-presence of today, yesterday and tomorrow…. For this is the nature of an image, any image. It’s all there at once.’ The third I’m getting from Foucault himself, who sees the self as something that ‘we have to create ourselves as a work of art’.

On the face of it these are three quite different ways of thinking about self. Self as a fluctuating, contingent impression; self as a unique and unchanging destiny; self as something each of us creates for ourselves. But I find each of them has something in it that is compelling and attractive, and each may be equally ‘true’ – if we want to use that word – or at least, equally useful. Also, I suspect each of these taken too dogmatically reveals its own shadow, which we would do better to avoid. So the shadow of the Gestalt model might be a tendency to irresponsibility and annihilation; that of the Soul’s Code, a loss of the sense of free will; of Foucault’s, a kind of narcissism. Maybe it’s good to hold on to all three, with each acting as a corrective to the others. Yes, we create who we are in each moment through our relations with others. Yes, we can think of creating ourselves as if it were a work of art. And yes, just as a work of art seems to unfold itself and realise itself as we work on it, we can choose to think of what we discover as a unique image, eternal, and greater than ourselves. If we want to.

park lane

Looking the other day at this photograph of myself, about 6 years old, among my class at infant school, I had a very strange feeling. It was as if everyone I have ever met since was simply another version of one or another of the people in this picture; as if this was a repertory company of actors who have played every other part in the story of my life. Certainly, I find it surprising now how many of these people I can remember quite vividly – in many cases, their names, and even if not, a strong sense of how I experienced them and how I related to them. With some I remember being mostly at ease (the ones I thought of as ‘my friends’), but many others I experienced as intimidating, or just very alien or strange. In fact it may be more accurate to say that, whether friend or stranger, every one of these individuals now survives in my memory as alarmingly unique, and even uniquely alarming. I suppose this group was the site of my earliest socialisation outside the family, and custom and practice had not yet dulled my sense of the weirdness and unpredictability of others. And the intensity of that experience therefore laid down for me a kind of map or taxonomy of the world of people, so that each one I met afterwards could be conveniently but unconsciously slotted into place as a Gordon, a Robert, or a Susan.

I don’t imagine that is literally true – my map must have continued to evolve over the decades – it’s just that, looking closely at this photograph now, it seems as if the main dimensions of that map were already laid down in that school hall, among the smells of polish, gravy, and sour milk, and that my own peculiar frame for meeting the world was forged for me there in a way that all subsequent groups I have been part of have somehow reinforced, rather than shaken.

Image and Identity

About a year ago I had a dream in which I saw many copies of a brand new book, a glossy yellow paperback, neatly packed in boxes. The title was Image and Identity – at least I think it was – this was only a dream, after all. I do remember that in the dream I was rather excited by the book, and wanted to get hold of a copy to read. But I don’t believe I did.

Since then, I’ve been very intrigued by this title. Perhaps it’s a book I need to write. (And if there is a real book with this name, I’m not sure I want to know about it.) It seems to raise a lot of thoughts about my thirty years working on advertising and brands, and my more recent work as a consultant with a growing focus on organisations and cultures.

Image and Identity. They’re both words we see all over the place, often in a marketing context: my local Frome paper has a headline ‘Experts called in to Improve Town’s Image’, while in my study I notice an internal document from a client I worked with last year headed ‘Our Identity’. Put the word ‘brand’ in front of either word and they may even seem interchangeable. Yet in practice, and in their origins, the words are also quite distinct, though it becomes harder to pin down just what the differences are.

An image (like the Latin word, imago) is a picture or likeness – something that’s therefore not solid, not real. (Imago can also signify a ghost.) Since its use in the phrase ‘brand image’ began in the nineteen-fifties, it’s accordingly carried an air of illusion about it, of smoke and mirrors, the Celtic ‘Glamour’ that deceived unwary travellers and lured them into fairyland. Maybe that’s why it’s a bit out of fashion in modern marketing speak, though not in popular usage.

Identity on the other hand is about certainty and proof. An identity card shows who you ‘really’ are – though it’s no coincidence that the hero of Mad Men, Don Draper, is revealed to be ‘really’ someone else, an army deserter living under a false identity, an abused child from a dirt poor family reinventing himself as a figure of power and envy. Identity is also something we can invent, and according to Anthony Giddens, all of us living in late modern society are compelled to invent our identities continually through the choices that we make. Identity may seem a more solid concept than image, but maybe that too is an illusion.

Behind these thoughts lies a bigger question about the way we think of brands, or indeed the way we think of ‘the self’: where, if anywhere, lies the reality or the authenticity behind the mask? Remembering that even our word personality comes from the Latin persona, a stylised mask used in the Roman theatre. Even Erving Goffmann, who enriched our thinking about human behaviour with the idea that all human interactions are a kind of performance, concludes somewhere that there is ultimately no ‘backstage area’ where we can finally stop acting and ‘be ourselves’. Perhaps there’s a deeper truth hidden in the hackneyed image of the ‘brand onion’, which I’ve often been critical of. Because if you peel away the layers of an onion, one by one, you’re not left with the core or essence of the onion – you’re left with nothing. Except the smell on your fingers.

And why is all this interesting to me right now? Because I’ve finally made the attempt to set out my stall in a website, and (although I said I’d never do it) started this blog. And I’m bang up against these questions which I believe, acknowledged or not, confront any brand or organisation or indeed any individual – How do I present myself to the world? Who do I want to be? And who do I think I am, really?