Present Laughter

I haven’t laughed that much at the theatre for a long time. Although this production turns out almost everything you expect from a Coward revival, it does have the pace, without which the dialogue often doesn’t work. This makes the fantasy setting brilliant and for the first few minutes I was sinking into this strange new world they had created.

The charm of the setting masks the vituperative humour, which builds steadily, until Gary’s final speech is turned into a nervous breakdown rather than an affected set-piece.

The scenes with Daphne are modern and fresh: Kitty Archer maintains astonishing articulation while speaking at top-speed. Andrew Scott’s speeches, where he builds to a frenzy, all got applause. He was astonishing.

It had none of the expected Englishness and charm. This means it looked and sounded very little like Coward plays do (and did) but captured the real spirit of the play much better than a traditional revival could have done.

What a haunting title. A sort-of carpe diem philosophy with undertones of melancholy. It is taken from Shakespeare:

What is love, ’tis not hereafter,
Present mirth, hath present laughter:
      What’s to come, is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me sweet and twenty:
      Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The production lingers on that last line. The costumes from the party are Peter Pan themed. The anger about ageing is vicious rather than just vain. The final scene is a dramatic change of tone and pace, so that the play makes the characters grow up, become miserable, face the hard reality of loneliness. The original script is not so threatening. The message this production missed is that life is too important to be taken seriously.

Overall, it was excellent. I am sad the remaining performances are booked up.



Other people’s faults

It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.

Marcus Aurelius, 7:71. How haunting. Try this just for an hour or so at work. It is exceedingly difficult.

Ecclesiastes 5:12

The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.

I take rich to mean idle, at least in part. The thrill is in the chase, as they say.

This is also solid nutritional advice. The Bible really does have a little bit of everything. Nothing new under the sun and all that.

Do read the whole thing.

What’s your advantage?

Your fluid intelligence is probably already in decline. Once you’re out of your late twenties or early thirties, it takes a dip.

You’ve still got it, but it starts tailing off. Eventually, it just tanks.

Some people think practice can guard against that; but it’s a delay, not a reversal.

The good news is that concrete intelligence continues strongly until old age. Poets peak by 40, historians at 60 (or later).

And there’s always the hope that we are outliers…

This matters at work because too much concrete intelligence, too much experience that doesn’t know when it’s wrong, can stifle an organisation.

We need also fluid intelligence: reactive, problem solving, smarts, not just the ability to marshal accumulated skills and knowledge.

Max Perkins, the genius editor, worked at Charles Scribner’s Sons, a traditional publishing house that mostly published old writers. They had become stuffy about what counted as quality literature. He discovered Scott Fitzgerald, but Scribner’s declined to publish.

Perkins worked on redrafts with Fitzgerald, had the book transformed into This Side of Paradise, fought for it at a board meeting, and then saw it through production almost in secrecy to avoid any upsets in the firm.

He kept it so close to himself it contained over a hundred typos (Perkins was a terrible speller and punctuator, as the best of us are).

Here’s how A. Scott Berg describes the meeting in Max Perkins, Editor of Genius. (Highly recommended. US link here.)

Perkins stood and began to pace the room. “My feeling,” he explained, “is that a publisher’s first allegiance is to talent. And if we aren’t going to publish a talent like this it is a very serious thing.” He contended that the ambitious Fitzgerald would be able to find another publisher for this novel and young authors would follow him. “Then we might as well go out of businesses.”

He was a young inexperienced editor, who had never done this before, bringing a new talent before the world, changing the way one of New York’s major publishers worked, starting a new era of fiction.

This is a classic picture of young vs old, fluid vs crystal.

Throughout his career Perkins discovered new talent, mentored them, produced bestsellers and prize winners. His breakthrough became crystallised and he got good at it. He turned flair into expertise.

There’s a simple lesson. Use your fluid intelligence now, whatever you have of it. Build your crystal intelligence, and make it pay like a lifetime’s savings.

When you are thinking about problems at life or at work, don’t be too certain that age and experience will be better than youth and naivety. And vice versa.

Wherever you are on this path, play to your strengths, don’t try and fit to a format. Sometimes your expertise is your advantage: sometimes not.

When you’re past the point of being useful in the setting you’re in now, remember that the last transition you made, from fluid to concrete, didn’t diminish your value. This one doesn’t have to either.

Change like this is simply you becoming valuable in different ways. If you’re going though a change, you just have to look for your new advantage and adapt.


15 copywriting tricks

  1. Short sentences work. But so do long sentences, because they offer depth, flexibility and the chance to end somewhere different than people expect. Use both.
  2. Begin with verbs. Practice this. Review bullet points and look at the verbs they start with: that’s you basic message, your spring board. It’s the basis of your tone.
  3. Reduce your punctuation: less is more. Beak sentences down. De-complicate them. Use dashes where possible – they are elegant, modern and easier than commas.
  4. Use the power of three. It’s timeless. It’s simple. It works.
  5. Cliché is everywhere and waiting for its chance. Re-purpose lines of poetry. Wait for words; don’t fill the page with familiarities.
  6. Start with your conclusion. Everyone knows this old trick. You tell them what you’re going to tell them, you tell them, and then you tell them what you told them. You conclude where you started.
  7. Borrow from rhetoric. Repeat things. Begin each sentence with the same word or phrase. Rhyme. Alliterate. Rephrase.
  8. Use metonyms. Things instead of ideas: the lion for courage, water for purity, the crown for the monarchy.
  9. Set something up in the headline or the opening, and then deviate, digress and diverge. Take a long arc round to where you started, so that it shows it all again in different terms, or fills in a gap. Create suspense, in other words.
  10. Write headlines, sub-headlines and single-sentence paragraphs. It’s not physics, so keep it simple. (If it is physics, this can still work.) Your headline matters most. ‘Once you have written your headline, you have spent 80¢ of your dollar,’ as David Ogilvy said.
  11. Use brackets sparingly, and only to add levity or nearly essential information.
  12. Information beats opinion. Information beats assertion. Information beats description.
  13. Writing is 80% research. Good writing is 100% not just a restatement of the research.
  14. Opposites should be contrasted clearly so that the contrast illuminates the opposites.
  15. Always end with a call-to-action. Get your reader to do something.

Some examples for you to look at. My review of Gates of Angels is perhaps the best copy-written article on this blog. Others include: Failure and The Reluctant Mr Darwin, by David Quammen.

Let him without sin…

Readers in their early thirties might consider themselves woke millennials – but how many of them, in their schooldays, used the word “gay” as a general pejorative?

And this

The atrocities we’re unconsciously committing in our novels today are probably something to do with the environment. All those casual plane journeys in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy! The takeaway coffee cups in Knausgaard!

As ever, the extracts make me no more interested in reading Updike. Alas.

I worry that the article is onto a losing wicket, but perhaps that is partly due to changing prose tastes as much as any political reasons. Worth reading in full.

Competence, Brexit, and Tory elections

Moreover, the Tories after 1846 not only possessed no-one with the stature of Peel, they scarcely had anyone with any experience of office at all. This was a grave handicap to a party whose tradition was essentially that of a party of government, indeed the party of government. Between 1806 and 1846 the Tories in one guise or another had ruled the country for twenty-nine out of forty years, and the period during which the Whigs held office had been too chaotic and faction-ridden to make them an acceptable substitute. During their last four years they had scarcely governed at all. Hence Peel’s victory in 1841 for the traditional party of government.

Plus ca change.

This is from Robert Blake’s The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher.